How to get the care you need in the face of a mental healthcare provider shortage

February 20, 2018 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn

If you’ve tried to get an appointment with a mental healthcare provider and failed, you’re not alone. While the demand for the services of mental healthcare professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and counselors has grown significantly, the number of providers has decreased, making it increasingly difficult to get an appointment. There are several reasons for the dwindling number of mental health specialists:

  • A large number of mental healthcare providers are reaching retirement age
  • Fewer medical students are choosing to become mental health specialists, in part because of the low insurance reimbursement rates for their services and because their earning potential is often lower than other medical specialties

One study found that the number of practicing psychiatrists per 100,000 residents in a typical community had declined by 10% during a ten-year period. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation also tracks physician shortages and found that in the more than 4,000 areas in the U.S. that are designated as mental healthcare professional shortage areas, only about 42% of the need for mental healthcare professionals is being met.

Too few providers is just one of the issues that make it difficult to get an appointment with a mental health specialist. For patients with high deductible health insurance or no insurance, the cost of care can be a barrier. Incorrect information and lack of follow-up by providers is another stumbling block. A study by Harvard researchers found that when the researchers called a sampling of offices of private practice psychiatrists in an insurance database in Boston, Houston, and Chicago, they found that the phone numbers in the insurance provider network directories were often wrong, calls were not returned by the doctors, and despite being listed as accepting new patients in the insurance database, the doctors were no longer taking on new patients.

Strategies for getting an appointment with a mental health specialist

To gain access to the care you need, try these strategies:

  • Start with your primary care physician: Depending on the type and severity of the issues you’re facing, your primary care physician may be able to manage your condition. In addition, a growing number of primary care practices are integrating mental health professionals into their practices, with a mental health specialist available in the office for immediate assessments.
  • Partner with an advisor: A health advisor can help you find mental health specialists and make expedited appointments.
  • Contact your local medical or psychiatric society: Professional societies can provide a list of mental health specialists in your area, as well as their credentials.
  • Ask providers if they have a waiting list: Although this approach may not get you an appointment in the near term, getting on a mental health provider’s waiting list can be helpful, especially if there’s a particular provider you want to see.
  • Consider mental health providers beyond psychiatrists and psychologists: The most severe shortages are in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. Depending on the issue you face, you may benefit from working with a licensed psychiatric social worker or trying group therapy or a support group.

If you’re experiencing symptoms that could be related to a mental health crisis, for example you’re in danger of harming yourself, you should go to the emergency room of your local hospital so you can get immediate access to care.