Why There is a Psychiatrist Shortage — and What to Do About It


Physicians are in shortage everywhere, and the lack of psychiatrists is particularly severe. According to The National Council for Behavioral Health “The coverage of, and increasing demand for, psychiatric services is occurring at the same time as a growing shortage of outpatient and inpatient programs.”

An insufficient number of psychiatrists causes problems for the U.S. healthcare system. Not only is it frustrating for patients, but it is also potentially harmful to them and their loved ones, as well as putting other health care workers at risk. The consequences of untreated mental health come at a cost to the taxpayer and society at large.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the current workforce of about 45,580 psychiatrists must increase by 2,800 to meet today’s demands for psychiatric care. This works out to a 6.4 percent shortage. By 2025, that shortage could be as high as 6,090 psychiatrists, or 12 percent.

Reasons for the Psychiatrist Shortage

Many of the same things that drive the general physician shortage contribute to the lack of psychiatrists. An aging workforce and physician burnout are problems across the board. However, for psychiatrists specifically, many are reluctant to join this specialty owing to lower rates of reimbursement and the burden of the documentation requirements that the job entails.

There are many restrictive regulations put in place in the mental health specialties which can create challenges in coordinating care, and for doctors who are already overworked and stressed, it can be too much.

A reduced stigma around mental health, media attention on the benefits of mental health care, and more affordable care have all contributed to an increased call for psychiatric intervention. The demand is exceeding the supply, while federal spending on mental health services remains flat.

There is also a problem with the distribution of psychiatrists across the United States. Along with a general shortage, psychiatrists are concentrated in specific areas, leaving 55 percent of counties in the US without a psychiatrist at all, according to the Steinberg Institute.

The Effects of the Psychiatrist Shortage

The National Council says that providers of psychiatric services in outpatient psychiatric programs, mostly psychiatrists, are dealing with shortened appointments and cramped schedules that hinder their ability to perform in-depth assessments or collaborate with other members of the team and consult with primary care providers.

Such punishing schedules affect the quality of care negatively, and that can be devastating for people facing mental health issues. According to The National Council, the lack of access to psychiatric care and services is diagnosed far more than other medical diagnoses, “averaging up to 23 hours for some dispositions”.

The National Council also goes on to explain that untreated psychiatric patients waiting in emergency departments can compromise the care of other patients, including urgent cases. Such delays also lead to unsatisfactory outcomes for the psychiatric patients themselves.

The Steinberg Institute backs this data, noting an estimated 40 percent of patients seen in a primary care setting have an active psychiatry problem, and two-thirds of primary care clinicians report difficulty accessing psychiatry services for their patients.

Recruiting Psychiatrists in a Shortage

A Forbes article notes that psychiatrists are now the second most highly recruited physicians after family physicians. If you’re trying to find a psychiatrist for your practice, you are not alone. Attracting and retaining psychiatrists is a challenge, but a worthy one to tackle to provide quality patient care.

While it is not possible to influence how many students go into psychiatry as a specialty, you can make your facility as attractive as possible to existing psychiatrists. Your practice is just one of many vying for one of the small number of psychiatrists available.

To attract the right staff, highlighting what makes your facility stand out, is vital. Pinpoint why your community, facility, and team, have a great deal to recommend them, and you’ll have your start for advertising. We can help you by determining what it is that makes your position attractive, then spreading that message to the right people.

Networking is key in recruitment for a hard-to-find the specialty. We work with a varied network of potential leads. By collaborating with residency programs, existing psychiatrists, medical journals, and other places where high-quality specialists can be found, we ensure we’ve cast a wide net.

There are financial and lifestyle benefits you can offer to sway a psychiatrist into joining your team. From covering relocation to offering a signing bonus or retention bonus, which can be a compelling draw. For areas without psychiatry, a higher salary or more intensive bonuses and benefits package may be required to bring someone on board.

Setting the right tone with recruitment ensures that you find a psychiatrist who is a good fit for your practice and your patients. Bringing the right healthcare professionals onto your team maximizes the potential for retention, so it is well worth expending the effort and time now.

Additionally, as highlighted above, having a psychiatrist on your team will improve the working lives of all your other staff, boosting your retention across the entire team. With the right fit, even the psychiatrist shortage will not hold you back from providing excellent care.

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