Psychology Education in the Medical Field

Kreitler, Shulamith
Tel-Aviv University,
Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center

Health psychology or medical psychology is a relatively new field of psychology that attracts a lot of students in different countries. It deals with the psychological variables that affect the occurrence of physical disease, coping with it and with the effects of treatments and other involved medical procedures, and recovery from the physical disorder. It concerns patients of all age groups and all physical disorders.

It is being taught mostly on the graduate level. It has become a field of psychology that combines research with psychological interventions geared to the special needs of the patient with physical disorders or difficulties. An examination of the programs and educational procedures applied in regard to health psychology in different countries – mainly the U.S. and Europe – show great differences and very low degree of homogeneity in the approach and structuring of the field. In Israel there have been several not completely successful attempts to prepare students for work in health psychology and we are about to start anew with a full-fledged program at Tel-Aviv University.

The main problems besetting education in medical psychology seem to be the following. First, in order to be able to function in health psychology in research or therapeutically, the student needs to master medical information in addition to psychological material. The medical background needs to be basic, updated and geared both to the needs of the patients and of the doctors with whom the practioner in helth psychology cooperates. It is not easy to determine the extent of medical background that the student needs to master. Second, it is necessary to determine to what extent the health psychology practitioner is an all-round professional, similar perhaps to the family doctor (who knows a little about many different domains) or a health psychologist who has specialized in specific domains, e.g., cardiology, diabetes, oncology. Third, the health psychologist is called upon in practice to help and intervene in different ways for which in many cases our science has not yet developed the appropriate tools. How do we bridge the gaps in knowledge by means of clinical tools that are already available, but are not always very appropriate? Finally, in the fourth place, it would be necessary to define the relations (similarities and differences) between health psychology and clinical psychology, in terms of content domains, theoretical approaches, methods of research, and psychotherpeutic interventions. The differentiation is not easy. For example, some content domains may be shared by the two sub-disciplines, e.g., drug addictions, eating disordes, neurological problems. Also some interventions may be shared, or apparently so, e.g., group therapy. But it is evident that if health psychology is to grow and become an autonomous discipline in psychology, it would be necessary to develop specific methods of research and therapy that would enable the practioners to help patients and to promote the development of new theoretical approaches about psycho-physiological issues, health and disease, body and soul.