Ringing the Changes for Better Health ; Health Psychologists Help You Alter Behaviour to Fight Illness, Professor Dorothy Fielding Tells KATE HILPERN

Article excerpt

If helping to prevent serious conditions such as cancer and AIDS appeals to you, or improving the effects of communication between health care practitioners and patients, then health psychology or clinical health psychology may be just the career.

As one of the newest and fastest developing areas of psychology, it is about promoting changes in people's attitudes, behaviour and thinking about health and illness. For some, it involves helping patients come to terms with a chronic physical illness. For others, it involves preventing illness among whole communities by encouraging behaviour such as exercise and health checks. Developing psychological interventions to promote coping with pain or reducing disability is another area health psychologists are involved in.

According to Professor Dorothy Fielding, clinical health psychology can be one of the most rewarding areas of psychology today. As head of clinical and health psychology at Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, she heads a team of 28 qualified psychologists over six hospitals covering both regional and local services in areas ranging from oncology to older people's services.

"Our particular service involves applying the knowledge and skills from psychology to physical health," explains Professor Fielding, who is also a visiting professor in the School of Psychology, University of Leeds, and chair of the British Psychological Society's division of clinical psychology. "The sorts of things we cover are helping patients come to terms with their illnesses - for example helping to reduce psychological distress where this is interfering with treatment, or helping patients deal with unwanted side effects of treatments like pain or nausea and improving the uptake of medical treatment by helping patients adhere to complex and difficult treatment regimes. The rewards come from seeing the impact of your work on individuals' quality of life and helping them at difficult times in their lives."

Opportunities exist to work directly or indirectly with clients, she says. Her own career is testament to the fact that it's possible to move between specialities in clinical psychology. "I entered psychology in the Sixties and following my psychology degree, I went straight into clinical training and then into the health service, initially working in child and adult mental health. Having done a PhD in childhood enuresis, I moved into an academic post at Liverpool University and then moved back into the health service here in Leeds, covering mental and physical health. In the Nineties, with the major changes in the NHS including the creation of the first Trust Hospitals, we went through a period of change and the department I headed up specialised in working with patients with physical health problems. That's the speciality I have stayed with ever since."

Variety is a major benefit of working in health psychology, she says. …