North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

How health psychology benefits society

Posted on: March 19, 2024
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Health psychology plays an important role in improving the well-being of individual people, communities, and society as a whole. By understanding the psychological factors that influence health, and utilising evidence-based interventions where needed, health psychologists can contribute to the development of effective healthcare strategies and policies, and create meaningful change in people’s lives.

What is health psychology?

Health psychology, or medical psychology, is an area of psychology that’s dedicated to understanding the psychological, behavioural, emotional, and cultural factors that impact health, well-being, and illness.

As a social science, it plays an indispensable role in shaping healthier and happier people – and societies – and can have a significant impact on multiple fronts including:

  • individual-level psychological interventions
  • community-based initiatives
  • integrating psychological perspectives into healthcare systems
  • addressing social determinants of health
  • influencing healthcare policies and improving general public health.

Health psychology at an individual level

A key focus of health psychology is on individual well-being. Health psychologists work closely with patients to understand their health beliefs, behaviours, and the psychological factors that may contribute to a physical illness or general health problems. By employing psychological theory and interventions, health psychologists can promote behaviour change, facilitate pain management, and enhance people’s overall quality of life.

Common examples of health psychology interventions at an individual level include:

  • Assisting with smoking cessation. Health psychologists often collaborate with healthcare professionals to develop programmes that address both the physical addiction to nicotine and the psychological aspects of smoking addictions. By utilising techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy and motivational interviewing, health psychologists can help people overcome their individual barriers to quitting, and provide ongoing support throughout the process through personal consultations.
  • Support for chronic illness management. By understanding the biopsychosocial model, which recognises the links between biological, psychological, and social factors in health, health psychologists can develop comprehensive treatment plans for people suffering from chronic illnesses. They work alongside healthcare providers to address not only the physical symptoms but also the psychological and social aspects of chronic diseases, improving patients’ overall wellness and their ability to cope with their conditions.

At this individualised level, health psychology is sometimes referred to as clinical psychology.

Health psychology at a community level

Health psychologists often work within communities to tackle broader health issues that impact – or could impact – pockets within their communities.

For example, they may:

  • consider social and environmental factors that could potentially contribute to health challenges within a specific area or region.
  • develop health interventions, initiatives, or programmes that target entire populations of people.
  • work with local community healthcare organisations, healthcare providers – both within the NHS and in the private sector – and policy makers to promote healthy behaviours.

A common example of health psychology at the community level is the promotion of physical activity and exercise. Health psychologists often collaborate with schools, workplaces, and community centres and hubs to design and implement programmes that encourage people to engage in regular exercise. They also frequently collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and clinical health psychologists.

By addressing psychological barriers, such as motivation, these interventions can increase the odds of people adopting and maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle. These initiatives have an impact beyond physical health, too: regular physical activity is often linked with improved mental well-being.

Another common area of community-based health psychology is the development of public health campaigns. By applying psychological theories and principles, health psychologists can design campaign initiatives that enhance health promotion, support disease prevention, and reduce risk factors such as excessive alcohol or drug consumption. These campaigns are tailored to specific communities, taking into account cultural, social, and psychological factors that can influence health behaviours. 

Health psychology at a societal level

Health psychologists regularly support and shape the development of healthcare systems and policies – something that has a tremendous impact on a wider society’s overall health.

Through research and collaboration, health psychologists can provide valuable insights into the psychological processes that underpin health-related decisions and behaviours, and their work influences policy makers when writing evidence-based health policies, ensuring that psychological considerations – and treatments – are integrated into healthcare delivery.

For example, health psychology has made significant contributions towards more robust mental health policies, and health psychologists have been instrumental in advocating for the integration of mental health services into primary care settings. This has helped ensure that people have access to both physical and mental health support within the healthcare system.

Health psychologists have also helped to address societal health disparities. These are differences in likely health outcomes based on a person’s social characteristics, also known as their social determinants of health. For example, health psychologists have conducted research that links particular social and psychological factors with health inequalities. By highlighting the social factors that influence health – such as socio-economic status, education, and social support systems – health psychologists have been able to work with policy makers to help reduce these disparities and create a more equitable and inclusive healthcare system.

Measuring the effectiveness of health psychology

To evaluate the impact of their interventions, health psychologists rely on various tools, such as surveys, assessments, and qualitative research, in order to determine their effectiveness. These evaluations assess outcomes for both physical and mental health, considering quality of life, health behaviours, patient satisfaction, and so on.

For example, when reviewing smoking cessation programmes, health psychologists may measure quit rates, reductions in cigarette consumption, and changes in attitudes towards smoking. They may also evaluate the long-term effects of interventions by examining relapse rates and sustained abstinence. And by collecting and analysing this data, health psychologists contribute to the field of health psychology’s wider evidence base.

Health psychology’s influence on healthcare

Health psychology has a significant influence on the broader healthcare field. When collaborating with other healthcare professionals, health psychologists provide a unique perspective that integrates psychological principles into medical practice. They also contribute to the training of healthcare providers and increase their competencies in the psychological aspects of health and illness.

Health psychologists also:

  • Enhance patient care. Health psychologists support patient care by addressing people’s psychological needs. By fostering effective patient-provider communication, health psychologists can improve the patient experience, increase treatment adherence, and facilitate shared decision-making processes when dispensing treatment or medical advice.
  • Integrate behavioural medicine into healthcare. Health psychologists recognise the influence of psychological factors on physical health outcomes, and through psychological treatments, such as stress management, they can improve a person’s response to their wider treatment plan.

Further resources

Explore health psychology in greater depth

Develop an in-depth understanding of health psychology alongside the psychology of education with the 100% online MSc Educational Psychology distance-learning from North Wales Management School, part of Wrexham Wrexham University. This flexible master’s degree explores the core psychological concepts that underpin practice in the psychology of education, and it is ideal for ambitious professionals in a wide range of roles in education. 

One of the key modules on this programme explores topics in health psychology, aiming to equip you with a knowledge and understanding of the role of social, psychological, and biological factors on physical and mental health, illness, and well-being within the context of the individual and contemporary society. The module also encourages the development of a critical understanding of relevant theories and models of behavioural change. You will cover topics around health promotion, the impact of social media, and the impact and management of stress and chronic illness, which can be applied to strategic, informed management practices in business.