Crisis in psychiatry: Top 5 problems, many solutions


Lack of access to psychiatric services has been a challenge for decades, resulting in significant delays to treatment with associated consequences in reduced quality of care, low patient satisfaction, poor patient outcomes, and higher costs.

The problem is exacerbated by a growing shortage of psychiatrists, an increased demand for psychiatric services, and inadequate payment rates. The result is a crisis that is resonating throughout the U.S. health care system.

As many know, a few months ago, the Medical Director Institute of the National Council for Behavioral Health, in partnership with the American Psychiatric Association, convened an expert panel to develop a report responding to this evolving quandary. The findings of our 60-page report, “The Psychiatric Shortage: Causes and Solutions,” suggest that psychiatry is uniquely positioned to address the issues that face our specialty.

The institute identified five areas of critical concern: workforce development, improved efficiency of service delivery, reducing burdensome regulations and confidentiality restrictions, broader implementation of innovative models, and adoption of novel reimbursement methods.

1. Workforce development

Psychiatrists come out of residency training without the skills they need to practice in today’s rapidly evolving health care environment. We need better preparation in measurement-based care, telepsychiatry, collaborative care, and other methods of efficient team collaboration with primary care.

Funding for graduate medical education and training programs must be expanded with an infusion of new funding – not only for psychiatrists – but also for psychiatric nurse practitioners and psychiatric physician assistants.

2. Improved efficiency of service delivery

Providers of psychiatric services in outpatient psychiatric programs face a cramped daily routine with increasingly briefer appointments scheduled back-to-back that limit in-depth clinical assessment, collaboration with other members of the treatment team, and consultation with primary care providers outside of the program. Such a schedule leads to lower-quality care.

Psychiatrists must have the same level of nurse and paraprofessional assistance and support provided to other medical specialties. In addition, regulations that prevent the broader use of telepsychiatry must be revised. All behavioral health providers should implement open access scheduling, a proven modality for reducing missed appointments.

3. Reducing burdensome regulations and confidentiality restrictions

Excessive documentation requirements, especially necessarily detailed, lengthy assessments and treatment must be revised and 42 CFR Part 2 must be made consistent with HIPAA requirements.

4. Broader implementation of innovative models

The shortage of psychiatrists will only worsen with the integration of primary care and behavioral health, and the shift to Accountable Care Organizations as part of health care reform (which, as of this writing, faces much uncertainty). Thanks to more efficient screening for mental health and substance use disorders now occurring in primary care, there will be growing demand for access to psychiatric services.

The collaborative care model for providing psychiatric services should be implemented throughout primary care. Behavioral health organizations must develop their own version of collaborative care that targets the limited psychiatric resource where it is most needed by using measurement-based care and collaborating more effectively with other team members.

5. Adoption of novel reimbursement methods

Inappropriately low rates limit access to care. Today, 40% of psychiatrists choose cash-only private practices, the second-highest among medical specialties after dermatologists, and 75% of provider organizations employing psychiatrists report that they lose money on their psychiatric services. At the same time, the shrinking number of inpatient psychiatric services has become a significant obstacle to improved access. Beds have been eliminated because of lower rates of reimbursement, compared with other medical-surgical procedures and difficulty in recruiting psychiatrists to staff inpatient units.

Psychiatric service rates must be reset to be consistent with the actual cost of providing care. Prospective payment models like Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics should be expanded, and bundled payments for services like collaborative care and complex care should be covered by payers.

The Medical Director Institute recommends these solutions so that access to psychiatric services does not remain a barrier to the overall success of health care reform and service delivery improving the health of Americans. Multiple stakeholders – federal and state governments, payers, providers, provider trade associations, and advocates – must take action within their spheres of influence in the design, funding, regulation, and delivery of behavioral health care to improve access to psychiatric services. Such broad collaboration is imperative for our patients to get the care they need.

Dr. Parks is the medical director for the National Council for Behavioral Health. He practices psychiatry on an outpatient basis at Family Health Center, a federally funded community health center established to expand services to uninsured and underinsured patients in central Missouri. He also holds the position of Distinguished Research Professor of Science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri–Columbia.

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