Briefs Focus

A Report on the Shortage of Psychiatrists in California and the U.S.

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Briefs Focus is a HASC feature designed to promote constructive dialogue about key issues in health care. This contribution is submitted by Merritt Hawkins, a HASC Endorsed Business Partner.

This executive summary looks at supply, demand and recruiting trends in the specialty of psychiatry. View the full report, “The Silent Shortage: A White Paper Examining Supply, Demand and
Recruitment Trends in Psychiatry,” by using the download button at right.

Overview: The Silent Shortage

The shortage of physicians in the United States – particularly primary care physicians – has been well documented, with a variety of organizations, including the American Medical Association (AMA), the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and multiple state medical and specialty organizations projecting a doctor deficit.

The lack of emphasis given to the psychiatry shortage is partially rooted in pervasive stigmas about mental illness in the United States. Those suffering from depression and other forms of mental illness frequently are reluctant to discuss their problems, and are often reluctant to seek treatment. While the symptoms of those with heart, lung, orthopedic or other physiological problems typically are readily apparent, the symptoms of those with psychological problems often are not.

In addition, mental illnesses generally cannot be addressed through medical procedures, but only made manageable through long-term treatment with drugs and/or therapy. Hospitals and clinics tend to be procedure oriented, a “cleaner” form of medicine where the appropriate surgery/intervention is performed and the next patient is addressed.

As a general rule, mental health problems in the United States, their causes, cures and those who suffer from them, tend to be swept under the carpet.

For these reasons, Merritt Hawkins refers to the dearth of psychiatrists as “the silent shortage.”

Key Findings

Nineteen percent of the U.S. population (43 million people) experience mental illness in a given year, with only 41 percent receiving needed health services. Among adults with a serious mental illnesses, less than two-thirds received psychiatric services in the past year.

An alarmingly high suicide rate exists among U.S. military veterans. This has placed additional focus on the need for psychiatric services. According to the Veterans’ Administration, the risk for suicide was 22 percent higher among veterans when compared to U.S. non-veteran adults.

Behavioral health crises consume a growing volume of ED resources. A “lack of access to psychiatric services stands out among all other medical diagnoses, averaging up to 23 hours for some dispositions,” the National Council Medical Director Institute underlines in a report. “The resulting extended waits… can reduce access in the ED for more acute medical presentations and lead to poorer outcomes for psychiatric patients.”

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