Human psychology has become an increasingly important factor in health outcomes.

By Charity Shumway

In an age when we can do more than ever to prevent disease and keep ourselves healthy, human psychology has become an increasingly important factor in health outcomes. What keeps at-risk individuals from getting cancer screenings? When DNA sequencing reveals genetic risks for certain diseases, does it lead to anxiety and avoidance or preventive action? These and similar questions are part of the burgeoning field of health psychology.

Among the researchers and clinicians at work in this new integrative field are Derner Institute Associate Professor Carolyn Springer, Ph.D., and Jennifer L. Hay, Ph.D. ’95.

As Dr. Springer explained, “The growth in health psychology as a field is connected to overall trends in integrative and complementary medicine. Especially with changes in health insurance, we’re realizing we need to be looking at the whole individual.” Dr. Springer’s own research looks at a range of health psychology issues.

African-American women are less likely to breastfeed their children, and Dr. Springer is working with a number of community-based organizations and hospitals to examine the reasons for this, particularly the media-related and social-perception factors that play into African American women’s lactation decisions.

Dr. Springer is also engaged in research related to patients’ understanding of the prescription and over-the-counter medications they take. “Doctors are assuming patients should know how to take things, but patients get home and there’s a different story,” Dr. Springer said. Her research looks at the gaps in communication that keep patients from understanding proper dosage.

In yet another research project, Dr. Springer is working with a research team headed by Rosy Chhabra, Psy.D., in the Department of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine to evaluate culturally based interventions for HIV/AIDS, alcohol abuse and coronary heart disease, targeting adolescents living in India.

For Dr. Hay, a clinical health psychologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and a faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical College, research and clinical work are closely intertwined. She treats patients who have been affected by melanoma. Her research, similarly, focuses on psychological factors related to cancer prevention.

“If a mother has melanoma, her kids are twice as likely to develop it,” Dr. Hay said. “How does that get communicated or not communicated? And how can we as psychologists promote useful conversations that could help family members prevent cancer?”

Dr. Hay also studies behavioral genomics. “There’s been an explosion of information in the last 10 to 15 years about genetics,” she said. “You can go online and get genetic information about yourself, but we know very little about whether that information is valid and helpful in health decision making. Do people run to their doctors to get help interpreting this data? Does it motivate healthy behaviors? Does it get people worried and distressed? What are the behavioral and psychological implications of the new genomics?”

As the field of health psychology continues to grow and develop, keep an eye on this trend: Research like Dr. Hay’s and Professor Springer’s will undoubtedly become an increasingly important part of the Derner Institute’s work.

This piece appeared in the Derner eNews Fall 2012 edition.

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