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15.8: The Future Of Health Psychology

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    Much of the past medical research literature provides an incomplete picture of human health. “Health care” is often “illness care.” That is, it focuses on the management of symptoms and illnesses as they arise. As a result, in many developed countries, we are faced with several health epidemics that are difficult and costly to treat. These include obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, to name a few. The National Institutes of Health have called for researchers to use the knowledge we have about risk factors to design effective interventions to reduce the prevalence of preventable illness. Additionally, there are a growing number of individuals across developed countries with multiple chronic illnesses and/or lasting disabilities, especially with older age. Addressing their needs and maintaining their quality of life will require skilled individuals who understand how to properly treat these populations. Health psychologists will be on the forefront of work in these areas.

    With this focus on prevention, it is important that health psychologists move beyond studying risk (e.g., depression, stress, hostility, low socioeconomic status) in isolation, and move toward studying factors that confer resilience and protection from disease. There is, fortunately, a growing interest in studying the positive factors that protect our health (e.g., Diener & Chan, 2011; Pressman & Cohen, 2005; Richman et al., 2005) with evidence strongly indicating that people with higher positivity live longer, suffer fewer illnesses, and generally feel better. Seligman (2008) has even proposed a field of “Positive Health” to specifically study those who exhibit “above average” health—something we do not think about enough. By shifting some of the research focus to identifying and understanding these health-promoting factors, we may capitalize on this information to improve public health.

    Innovative interventions to improve health are already in use and continue to be studied. With recent advances in technology, we are starting to see great strides made to improve health with the aid of computational tools. For example, there are hundreds of simple applications (apps) that use email and text messages to send reminders to take medication, as well as mobile apps that allow us to monitor our exercise levels and food intake (in the growing mobile-health, or m-health, field). These m-health applications can be used to raise health awareness, support treatment and compliance, and remotely collect data on a variety of outcomes. Also exciting are devices that allow us to monitor physiology in real time; for example, to better understand the stressful situations that raise blood pressure or heart rate. With advances like these, health psychologists will be able to serve the population better, learn more about health and health behavior, and develop excel- lent health-improving strategies that could be specifically targeted to certain populations or individuals. These leaps in equipment development, partnered with growing health psychology knowledge and exciting advances in neuroscience and genetic research, will lead health researchers and practitioners into an exciting new time where, hopefully, we will understand more and more about how to keep people healthy.


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