New Educational Initiative Aims to Boost Psychiatric Care Workforce

The demand for behavioral health services nationwide these days is strong, with more than half of Americans seeking assistance for themselves or loved ones. However, the supply of clinicians is not keeping up with the demand for services.

In California, where a shortage of behavioral health care workers has made national news in recent years, the situation is especially dire. But the state, which is projected to have the country’s largest shortage of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) by 2030, is getting some help.

A newly announced higher education initiative in California aims to train more psychiatric nurse practitioners for the field, presenting a potential boon for the state’s behavioral health industry.

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Three schools within the University of California (UC) system — Davis, Los Angeles and San Francisco — recently announced the launch of an online educational program that aims to certify 300 PMHNPs by 2025.

The new program launches later this year and is specifically aimed at combating behavioral health workforce shortages.

PMHNPs and psychiatrists are the only health professionals who have the authority to diagnose psychiatric conditions and prescribe medications to treat such issues.

“This program really highlights [a] unique collaboration,” Kathryn Phillps, a senior program officer with the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF), told Behavioral Health Business.

CHCF is a nonprofit organization comprised of health care professionals, experts and executives working to improve delivery of health care services throughout the state. The organization contributed a $1.5 million grant, in part, to help launch the certification program.

“This is a partnership amongst three different branch campuses of the UC system, which haven’t historically worked together, and they’re offering this in a joint way,” Phillips said. “That speaks to how our education and health delivery system recognizes that we are in a crisis, and we need new ways of working together and learning from one another.”

The plan is for 40 students to join the program this fall, with the goal being to increase that number to 65 for each following year of the initiative’s five-year duration.

Large portions of the state consist of rural and low-income communities, where patients seeking health care services have inadequate transportation access, making it difficult for them to get treatment. The situation is also compounded by a shortage of mental health workers, like PMHNPs, who help providers deliver behavioral health services.

“The problem is… not that there aren’t providers in those areas, because there might be enough,” Deborah Johnson, the director of student recruitment and clinical partnerships for the University of California-San Francisco’s School of Nursing, told BHB. “You just don’t have the staff.”

Additionally, there’s a growing number of health care professionals who are either retiring or are close to doing so, without an equal number of workers ready to replace them, Philips said.

“We haven’t built the pipeline,” Phillips said. “We don’t have supply, [and] we need to backfill primary care and, specifically, the psychiatry workforce.”

More than 50% of California residents with mental illnesses are not receiving psychiatric care, according to CHCF and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The crisis received national attention last year when more than 4,000 workers from Oakland-based health provider giant Kaiser Permanente launched a five-day strike to protest what they saw as substandard delivery of behavioral health services by the employer throughout the state, along with claims they were overloaded with cases and receiving worse employee benefits than their medical worker colleagues.

CHCF says the online, post-master’s program is the first of its kind in California, allowing aspiring nurse practitioners — some of whom live in those remote locales — to receive additional training without having to always travel the distance to a physical campus to do so.

“There are wonderful people in all of those… [rural and low-income] communities that are working so hard to serve the population, but they can only provide the services that they can get educated to provide,” Johnson said.

Officials promise that the program will deliver the kind of rigorous training to students that they would otherwise receive in a physical classroom setting, given that it will also include in-person supervision for clinical rotations in their home communities.

“I think [the] combination is going to help to bridge that gap,” Johnson said.

The ultimate goal is for the graduates to serve as many as 378,000 patients between now and when the program completes in five years.

For California’s providers facing a major dearth of PMHNPs by the beginning of the next decade, the certification program could be a game changer with its efforts to beef up the mental health workforce.

“This initiative gives us an opportunity to spread our reach and really get to where these needs are across the state,” Johnson said.

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