Clinical psychology and health psychology are two different disciplines within the field of psychology. Although we can sometimes confuse them because of their similarities, they present certain differences that should be known.

What can a clinical psychologist do? What about a health psychologist? Do they have the same skills? Can they both diagnose? In this article we will resolve these and other doubts related to the differences between clinical psychology and health psychology.

Differences between clinical psychology and health psychology

There are notable differences between clinical psychology and health psychology; in fact, these two disciplines, although they feed off each other and interact, are independent and well differentiated.

We are going to analyze the most important differences between them: among other questions, we will answer the following: do they both deal with the same thing? What are their objectives? What do they focus on? At the professional level, what does each figure do?


The objectives of these two disciplines are quite different; while clinical psychology tries to identify and apply psychological principles to prevent and treat the person’s psychological problems , Health Psychology aims to maintain health, prevent and treat illness, as well as to identify the different causes that are giving rise to the illness.

In other words, in order to understand the differences between clinical psychology and health psychology, we must stay with the fundamental idea that clinical psychology is more concerned with treating the illness once it has appeared (or, rather, the mental disorder) (this also includes its diagnosis), while health psychology is more focused on the prevention of the illness and on the promotion of health.

In addition, health psychology also aims to improve the health system and promote the formation of a health policy. Thus, in this sense, it would encompass a system that is broader than the patient himself, more typical of clinical psychology (always speaking in general terms).

What does each one do?

Some authors have also expressed their opinion on the differences between clinical psychology and health psychology; for example, in 1991 Marino Pérez established that health psychology deals with psychological issues that may have physiological consequences , while clinical psychology deals with psychological problems themselves.

As for health psychology, a nuance: the reverse case also occurs ; that is, health psychology also focuses on the psychological consequences that may trigger certain health or physiological problems.

Here, too, the person’s disease behaviours (actions that people take when they experience symptoms of disease), as well as the patient’s interaction with the health system at the institutional level, would come into play .

Areas of intervention

The latter we explained goes in line with the opinion of another author, Santacreu (1991), who considers that health psychology focuses on health (on the promotion of health), as well as on the prevention of illness, and also understands the organism (on a somatic and psychological level) in relation to its social, family and health environment (within that context).

Clinical psychology, on the other hand, focuses more on illness and “healing” , and understands or treats the organism on an individual level (psychological and somatic as well). This does not mean that it does not take into account the context and family relations, but rather that it is treated more individually, and instead health psychology treats more the health “system” in which the person lives.

What is the focus of each?

On the other hand, health psychology focuses on all those components or aspects associated with health and physical illness, at the cognitive, emotional and behavioural levels. That is, focuses on the person’s physical health and illness, as well as on the care of his/her physical health (which is actually related to mental health).

However, clinical psychology has as its primary concern to assess, predict and alleviate mental disorders (i.e. disorders associated with mental health, such as a depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder or a schizophrenic disorder).

Academic and professional field: PIR or MGS?

At the academic and professional level, we also found differences between clinical and health psychology.

On the one hand, to be a clinical psychologist and practice as such in Spain, after studying the degree in Psychology, one must take the PIR (Resident Internal Psychologist). The PIR consists of an exam that allows you to obtain a place as a resident, through 4 years of specialized health training in a hospital (which includes rotations through the different units).

After 4 years of PIR residency in a hospital, one is already a clinical psychologist (PECPC), also called a clinical psychologist, and can work both in the public health field (e.g. in hospitals) and in the private field (e.g. in mental health centres).

However, the health psychologist would be more similar to the General Health Master’s Degree (MGS) ; this Master’s Degree can be taken after completing the four-year degree in Psychology. It provides the professional skills to practice as a health psychologist, which basically includes health promotion through psychological intervention or therapy; technically (or legally), however, they cannot diagnose (which clinical psychologists can).

Bibliographic references:

  • Official College of Psychologists of Spain (1997). Report on Definition of the area of Clinical and Health Psychology. Application frameworks. Training of professionals. Madrid. State Secretariat.
  • Pérez, M. (1991). Medicine, Health Psychology and Clinical Psychology. Revista de Psicología de la Salud, (3)1, 2144.
  • Rodríguez-Marín, J. (1998). Health psychology and clinical psychology. Papeles del psicólogo, 69.
  • Santacreu, J. (1991). Clinical Psychology and Health Psychology. Revista de Psicología de la Salud, (3)1, 320.