Child Psychiatrist Shortage Improves, But 70% of Counties Still Lack Access

Good news for more than half of the children in the United States, who have treatable mental health conditions: The child psychiatrist shortage is improving. The workforce grew more than 21% between 2007 and 2016. 

However, that progress still isn’t enough to meet the high demand for services. And on top of that, accessibility is highly variable, with 70% of U.S. counties lacking even a single child psychiatrist. 

Those findings come from a new study published in the November edition of Pediatrics, an academic journal covering the field. The research highlights the opportunity for providers to fill gaps in the mental health care continuum, especially for children.

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Researchers sought out to assess the nationwide shortage of child psychiatrists, which has historically hindered children’s access to care. To compile their results, they used data from area health resource files to compare the number of child psychiatrists in different areas between 2007 and 2016.

Since 2007, the shortage has improved significantly. In 2016, the number of child psychiatrists in the country grew by 21.3% compared to nine year earlier, rising to nearly 8,000. During the same period, the number of child psychiatrists per capita also improved. It increased 21.7%, with nearly 10 psychiatrists per 100,000 kids in 2016.

Still, demand has far outpaced supply, as a separate study suggests that more than 17 million children have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder — far more than could be appropriately treated by 8,000 psychiatrists. 

Additionally, not all regions of the country are created equal when it comes to access to care. 

In fact, six states — Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and South Carolina — saw a decrease in their ratio of child psychiatrists. Meanwhile, in states like Alaska, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma and Rhode Island, the number of child psychiatrists increased by more than 50%. 

Those findings can be broken down even further, by county. Generally, child psychiatrists were far more likely to work in metro areas with high incomes and education levels — leaving 70% of counties across the country without a single child psychiatrist.

Researchers called that discrepancy “profound” and stressed the need for policies and creative solutions to address the problem.

“Broader policies that influence educational and economic opportunity may be required,” they wrote. “Absent these, counties with few or no child psychiatrists may need to look to alternative or complementary frameworks to address child mental health needs, including integration of behavioral health in pediatric primary care settings, school-based mental health services, child psychiatry telephone consultation access programs and new models of telepsychiatry.”

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