Health psychologist

Health psychology is a specialist area of psychology that focuses on how biological, psychological and social factors influence health, illness and healthcare. It explores how people stay healthy, why they get ill and how they respond once they are ill. It is a combination of science and practice.

Health psychologists use their knowledge of psychology and health to promote wellbeing and healthy behaviours. They are specially trained to understand the psychological and emotional aspects of health and illness.

Starting your career

Choosing subjects at school

To become a health psychologist, you need a good standard of education. Useful subjects include:

  • Psychology
  • Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
  • English
  • Human Biology
  • Maths

Work placements and volunteering

You may find it helpful to get some experience of working in healthcare by doing a work placement. There may also be opportunities to volunteer. This could help you when applying to university, college or a new job with NHSScotland.

Apprenticeships

Foundation Apprenticeships

A Foundation Apprenticeship could give you valuable work experience. Find out about Foundation Apprenticeships in:

College and university

Health psychology is studied at postgraduate level. It means you’ll need an undergraduate honours degree in psychology to gain access to further health psychology training. From there, you will need to complete:

  • a master’s degree in health psychology accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS)
  • a doctoral-level qualification in health psychology that is approved by the Health Care Professionals Council (HCPC)

Find out more about a career as a health psychologist from the BPS’s Division of Health Psychology.

Accessing a psychology degree

Most universities accept a wide range of qualifications, giving you the choice of applying directly from school or going to college first.

At college, you could do a Higher National Certificate (HNC) or Higher National Diploma (HND) to set you on the right path. These include:

Widening participation supports adult learners who want to go to university.  If you’re an adult with few or no qualifications, you could get into higher education through the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP). Many universities also provide access programmes to help you get the degree entry qualifications you need.

Search for related further and higher education courses on My World of Work. You should check specific entry requirements before applying.

Accessing postgraduate health psychology training

Your psychology degree must be accredited by the BPS for the Graduate Basis for Chartership (GBC).

You’ll need at least a 2:1 honours degree from a BPS-accredited psychological degree programme to meet the entry requirements for health psychology training. If you already have an undergraduate degree in a different subject, you can undertake a conversion course in psychology to gain the GBC.

To qualify as a health psychologist, you must undertake two stages of training. Stage 1 training is a taught master’s degree in health psychology. It will provide you with the knowledge, theory and research skills that are essential in the practice of a health psychologist.

Universities in Scotland that offer a master’s degree in health psychology include:

In stage 2 training, you will apply the knowledge from stage one in practice and develop on-the-job skills across the 5 main areas of practice:

  • professional skills
  • psychological interventions
  • research
  • consultancy
  • teaching and training

There are several routes you can take to complete stage 2 training:

Doctorate in health psychology

You can study for a doctorate in health psychology. These programmes must be approved by the HCPC and the BPS and usually take 3 years to complete. The universities that offer this course are:

NHSScotland funded route

There is a funded route in Scotland, which allows you to complete stage 2 training whilst working within NHS Boards. NHS Education for Scotland (NES), in partnership with Health Boards in Scotland, fund several trainee health psychologists each year to explore the contribution health psychology can make in supporting NHSScotland to meet its health improvement targets.

These are two-year, fixed-term posts designed to allow trainees to complete the BPS’s stage 2 training while employed by the NHS to undertake an approved programme of work. Find out more information on the NES stage 2 programmes.

British Psychological Society independent training route

You can also undertake stage 2 training independently. This route allows you to complete training whilst working in job or volunteer position that is relevant to health psychology, or when undertaking a PhD in a relevant subject. You would then submit your portfolio of practice through the BPS’s independent training route.

The role

As a health psychologist, you’ll:

  • promote healthier lifestyles
  • improve physical health through psychological interventions
  • enhance people’s ability to manage and live well with long-term and chronic conditions

You’ll work with a wide range of people with a variety of mental and physical health needs, including:

  • addictive behaviours
  • adjustment to physical health conditions
  • diabetes and coronary heart disease
  • weight management
  • gastroenterology conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome
  • staff health and wellbeing
  • vaccine uptake
  • Covid-19 prevention and recovery

You'll also use your skills to try to improve the healthcare system, by:

  • providing training, advice and supervision to health and social care professionals
  • advising services and policy makers about more effective ways to support their patients

You’ll be part of a rapidly evolving profession that uses the practice and application of psychology to study behaviour relevant to health, illness and healthcare.

What you’ll do

Tasks include:

  • assessing and understanding patients’ problems and how they came about (sometimes called formulation)
  • using psychological models and evidence-based intervention to treat these problems
  • planning treatment, including therapy, in partnership with the patient
  • developing and evaluating services within the NHS
  • providing training and consultancy to other professions, encouraging a psychological approach to their work
  • investigating the nature and effects of communication between health professionals and patients
  • looking at the psychological impact of illness on individuals, families and carers
  • using psychological interventions to help self-management of pain and illness
  • advising organisations involved in public health, such as the NHS, local authorities and charities
  • using psychological interventions to help prevent physical and mental ill health at individual, group, community and population levels

Top skills

You’ll need these skills:

  • active listening
  • compassion
  • empathy
  • problem solving
  • planning
  • teamwork
  • relationship-building

Who you’ll work with

You’ll work with a multi-disciplinary team of people, including:

  • doctors
  • nurses
  • allied health professionals
  • mental health professionals

As a health psychologist, you’ll work with groups and individuals, including children, adults and older adults. You may also work indirectly through the development of remote approaches such as using the media or online interventions.

You’ll develop skills in teaching and training others. This will help you to support and supervise staff at all levels in their work with patients, carers and families.

Working environment

You could work in:

  • hospitals
  • community teams
  • public health teams
  • universities

You could also work in academia, teaching and conducting research.

Useful information

Health psychologist is a protected job title by law. To work as a health psychologist in NHSScotland, you’ll need to:

Did you know?

Your mind and body are much more closely linked than people think. Health psychologists can help to empower people to cope with stress, which can help their immune system to fight off illness.  

Health psychologists have been involved in several committees and groups leading the response to the Covid-19 pandemic since it began. This includes the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee.

Learning and development

Once qualified and registered with the HCPC, you can use the title health psychologist. You will then be eligible to apply to become a chartered member (CPsychol) of the BPS.

As a health psychologist, you would be expected to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) to keep your knowledge and skills up to date. You must undertake an average of 40 hours of CPD per calendar year, over a 3-year period. Your CPD should be varied and balanced. It can include:

  • post-qualification training courses
  • received professional supervision
  • personal psychological counselling for professional purposes
  • systematic reflection on practice
  • research activities

You must also do this to maintain your registration with the HCPC.

Professional bodies

British Psychological Society (BPS)

The BPS is the professional body for psychologists in the UK. They offer 3 levels of membership:

  1. Student membership: open to everyone studying on a BPS-accredited undergraduate degree or conversion course
  2. Graduate membership: the starting point to your career as a psychologist and a prerequisite for many accredited post-graduate and doctoral programmes
  3. Chartered membership: the highest level of psychological knowledge and expertise

To find out more, visit the BPS website.

Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)

The HCPC is an independent, UK-wide regulatory body responsible for setting and maintaining standards for health, psychological and, in England, social work professionals. It maintains a public register of qualified professionals and works to improve industry standards and education.

To find out more, visit the HCPC website.