U.S. desperately needs psychiatrists, mental health services

A shortage of psychiatrists and mental health services has created a crisis in the U.S. that sends many patients to the emergency room as a last resort.

An expert panel this week released a new report (PDF) that looks at the problem and recommends changes to rectify the shortage of psychiatrists and lack of mental health care. Training, funding and models of care need to be addressed, according to the report released by the National Council Medical Director Institute, which advises the National Council for Behavioral Health on issues related to clinical practice.

"People want psychiatric services. They know treatment works, and it's less stigmatizing than it used to be, so people are more willing to accept and seek treatment," Joe Parks, M.D., the council’s medical director, told Medscape.

However, access to mental health care is a major problem. Two-thirds of primary care physicians report having trouble getting psychiatric services for patients.

It can take three to six months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist, Martha J. Whitecotton, R.N., senior vice president of behavioral health at the Carolinas HealthCare System told an audience this week at American College of Healthcare Executives’ 2017 Congress in Chicago.

The U.S. has only 40,000 psychiatrists, most are located in urban areas and half of the counties in the country don’t have a single practicing mental health professional, she said. Also, 48% of psychiatrists are over the age of 60—a statistic that should frighten people, said Whitecotton, who discussed the Carolinas’ program to integrate behavioral health services into primary care using telehealth.

RELATED: ACHE 2017: Carolinas Health integrates behavioral health, primary care to improve diagnosis, treatment

Like other physicians, psychiatrists are suffering from burnout, the report said. Some of the recommendations in the report include removing barriers to integrated care, streamlining administrative paperwork so psychiatrists can spend more time with patients, changing how psychiatrists are paid and improving confidentiality regulations.