We’ve talked a lot lately about the looming shortage of clinical providers. Doctors, nurses, advanced practitioners, and personal caregivers will all be in high demand in the coming years. But the short supply of clinical talent stretches into the mental health field as well; there is an extensive psychiatrist shortage expected in the coming years. What is the current situation, what can we expect in the future, and how can we prepare?
Mental Health Staffing Challenges Ahead
When patients lack access to healthcare, negative outcomes can occur. When a mental health patient can’t get a psychiatric appointment for several months, their health and the lives of those around them can suffer. This is a huge issue in the US because one in five people have a mental health or substance abuse issue, making these illnesses more prevalent than heart disease or cancer, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). But that same study showed that just half of the people that need help receive it.
According to research studies there are currently about nine psychiatrists per 100,000 people. But in rural areas, the shortages are acute; 60% of US counties have no practicing psychiatrists. These professionals serve as the front line in our efforts to evaluate mental health issues and prescribe and manage medications. Most of these shortages lie in our nation’s rural areas and they are expected to drop precipitously in the coming years. 60% of our current psychiatric workforce is over age 55, marking this population one of the oldest in all the medical specialties.
The National Council for Behavioral Health reports we will be short 6,000 to 15,000 psychiatrists by 2025. The practical result is that wait times are increasing. Data shows at least a two-week wait in most cases, sometimes much longer. There is a corresponding reduction in the amount of time each patient is seen, as well, and long-term health monitoring will certainly be affected by the simple lack of human power to provide it. Cost is also a burden; 45% of psychiatrists do not accept private insurance or Medicaid. In-patient programs are also declining. How can healthcare providers fight back against these trends to help their patients cope?
AAMC Recommendations for Psychiatrist Shortage
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) recommends that healthcare providers combat these problems. They suggest:
- Increasing efforts to attract a new crop of future psychiatrists. Creating a robust network of candidates for educational programs is an important way to build for the future.
- Mentoring high school and college students in ways that create engagement around working in the psychiatric field.
- Adding residency slots to increase the volume of psychiatry students. While Medicare costs were frozen in 1997, some organizations may take on the costs of additional training.
- Developing new service lines such as telepsychiatry. Telemedicine allows healthcare providers to stretch their workforce by treating patients over the Internet instead of in a traditional face-to-face visit.
- Creating new partnerships with family practice doctors as well as providing more psychiatric training to primary care physicians.
Healthcare providers must work now to head off the ill effects of the psychiatrist shortage. Mental health and substance abuse disorders are two illnesses that have a heavy impact on the community. This makes adding more providers not only the right thing to do, it is imperative for the communities we serve.