Is Psychology a Health Science? An In-Depth Exploration
Is Psychology a Health Science?
Psychology encompasses a broad range of topics related to the human mind and behavior. But is it considered a health science? This is a complex question with arguments on both sides. In this comprehensive blog post, we’ll explore the key facets of this debate and arrive at a well-reasoned conclusion.
What are Health Sciences?
To determine if psychology qualifies as a health science, we must first define what constitutes a health science. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health sciences are fields of study dealing with the application of science, engineering, mathematics, and technology to health, healthcare delivery, and public health policy. They aim to promote health, prevent and treat disease, and improve rehabilitation and long-term care.
Examples of recognized health sciences include biomedical sciences, nutrition sciences, nursing science, dental science, medical science, and allied health fields such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology. Most health sciences professions also require extensive clinical training.
The Primary Arguments
There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this debate. Those who argue that psychology is a health science point to the following:
- Psychology studies mental health, behavior, and the brain – key aspects of overall health.
- Psychologists and neuroscientists collaborate closely in health-related research.
- Clinical psychologists provide healthcare services related to mental health conditions.
- The work of psychologists in hospitals, clinics, schools and private practice aim to prevent, diagnose, and treat health conditions affecting thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
However, others contend that while psychology does relate to health in many ways, it lacks some key qualifications to be considered its own health science discipline. These include:
- Psychology PhDs do not typically receive the same medical training as other core healthcare providers like physicians, nurses, dentists or physical therapists.
- Psychologists have a separate licensing and credentialing structure governed by state psychologist licensing boards rather than health licensing boards.
- Health insurance coverage of psychological services differs from medical services.
- The majority of psychology research takes place in an academic setting rather than a healthcare delivery setting.
Evaluating the Evidence
As with most complex questions, there are good counterarguments to the above points. But evaluating the balance of evidence can help determine where psychology likely fits overall.
In Favor of Health Science Classification
First examining the evidence in favor of classifying psychology as a health science:
- Mental health is recognized as a key component of overall health by all major health organizations. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identifies mental health as one of the 10 essential public health services. Considering psychology’s critical role in studying mental health, it reasonably deserves consideration as a health science.
- Many psychologists work in healthcare settings ranging from hospitals and specialty clinics to primary care offices. Their clinical work in the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions mirrors other accepted health professions.
- Psychologists receive extensive training in areas applicable to health like human development, emotions, cognition, behaviors, interpersonal processes, biology and neuroscience. Those with a PsyD or PhD must complete a pre-doctoral internship where they provide supervised clinical care.
- The American Psychological Association has petitioned, thus far unsuccessfully, to be included along with medical specialty boards under the American Board of Medical Specialties. This demonstrates the profession views itself as serving a healthcare function.
Against Health Science Classification
However, arguments against classifying psychology as its own health science also have merit:
- Licensure laws prohibit psychologists from administering medication or medical treatment, unlike physicians, nurse practitioners or physician assistants who practice more comprehensively alongside psychology within integrated care teams.
- Healthcare administrators do not recognize psychology as one of the core healthcare professions like medicine, nursing, dental medicine, pharmacy, etc. Reimbursement limitations on psychological services also highlight systemic differentiation.
- Psychology lacks the scientific foundation seen in biomedical sciences. As social science grounded more in observation than biological mechanisms, it operates differently than foundations of medical practice.
- With roots extending into philosophy and animal behavior, psychology lacks healthcare delivery origins fundamental to most recognized health professions that originated specifically to serve human needs.
Evaluating the well-reasoned arguments and evidence on both sides, psychology likely falls just short of meeting the criteria to qualify independently as a healthcare science. While mental healthcare delivery remains psychology’s largest applied field, most psychology PhDs do not receive formal clinical training. And non-clinical focuses like cognitive, developmental and social psychology do not directly connect to healthcare delivery in an equivalent way that all medical specialties tie back directly to human health needs.
Additionally, the structures of professional training, certification, licensure and healthcare administration recognition differentiate psychology from more fully recognized health professions like medicine, nursing, dentistry and pharmacy.
However, given psychology’s importance for advancing mental health treatment and collaborative role alongside other core health disciplines, it merits consideration as an allied health profession or biomedical preparatory field. But full equivalent classification alongside more established healthcare sciences seems mismatched given the distinctions.
Q: Is psychology a science?
Yes, psychology utilizes established scientific methods involving hypotheses testing, empirical research, statistical analysis, and evidence-based modification of theories when warranted. These qualities make psychology a social science, albeit differentiated from physical sciences.
Q: Do you have to go to medical school to become a psychologist?
No. Clinical psychologists complete doctoral degrees (PhD or PsyD) focused specifically in psychology, which include some instruction in health-related content but not the comprehensive medical training physicians receive. Psychologists undergo rigorous academic and clinical preparation but through programs accredited by organizations like the American Psychological Association rather than medical credentialing entities.
Q: Do health insurance plans cover psychologists?
Yes, most major health plans do offer some coverage of psychological services, although often with different reimbursement procedures, limitations and requirements for referrals or prior authorization compared with medical services. Mental health parity laws work to reduce barriers to equitable mental health coverage but gaps still persist in many cases.
Q: Are psychologists doctors?
Psychologists with doctoral degrees (PhD or PsyD) are considered doctors in the academic sense but not medical doctors like physicians or psychiatrists, who attend medical school and receive more comprehensive medical training. All psychologists receive instruction in health-related sciences but clinical psychologists specialize in the healthcare delivery aspect by assessing, diagnosing and treating mental health conditions through psychotherapy and other non-medical interventions.
Q: Do psychologists prescribe medication?
No. Prescribing medication and administering medical treatments are outside the scope of licensed psychologists in the United States. However, certain advanced practice nurses and Physician Associates can prescribe within managed protocols, as can psychiatrists who complete both medical degrees and specialized psychiatric training to provide comprehensive mental health care incorporating psychotherapy, medication management, hospitalization and coordination of care with other health disciplines.
Conclusion Of Is Psychology a Health Science
The question of whether psychology qualifies as its own health science sparks thoughtful debate given its clear healthcare relevance regarding mental health, a critical component of overall health. Reasonable arguments exist on both sides considering variations in healthcare administrator recognition, professional training models, practice scope, licensure contrasts and other factors that differentiate psychology from more fully established peer health disciplines.
While psychology collaborates extensively alongside other bonafide health professions and serves a vital healthcare delivery role through assessed, diagnosed and treated mental health conditions, certain distinctions separate it from being considered a true equivalent health science. Classification as an allied health profession or biomedical preparatory field better reflects psychology’s position outside, yet substantively connected to, medicine and core health delivery domains.
This evaluation leads to a verdict that psychology currently falls short in meeting the full criteria required to be counted independently as a healthcare science. However, its importance for advancing mental health treatment and collaborative role within integrated care teams means psychology merits ongoing consideration and perhaps future reevaluation as conceptualizations of health delivery evolve.