Arizona seeing shortage of psychiatrists

The pinch leads primary care physicians to take on more mental health responsibilities.

By Myrle Croasdale — Posted Dec. 12, 2005

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Arizona patients and primary care physicians alike are having a hard time accessing psychiatrists. According to new data, the state has 12 psychiatrists for every 100,000 of its citizens. That's below the national average of 17 psychiatrists.

For patients in Arizona, that means there are long waits for appointments with psychiatrists, said Mary Rimsza, MD, lead author of the "Arizona Psychiatric Physician Workforce Study." The shortage also leaves primary care physicians without ready access to psychiatric consults as they care for patients with mental health concerns.

"In my specialty of pediatrics, we've found it so difficult to obtain psychiatric care for our patients that our state's pediatricians have asked for continuing medical education on these issues so they can provide this care themselves," Dr. Rimsza said.

When residents in Louisiana and New Mexico lacked access to psychiatrists, it opened the door for psychologists to gain prescribing authority by arguing that the situation compromised access to mental health care.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona Medical Assn. said the state's legislative process has helped prevent similar efforts from succeeding there.

"Practitioners who want to change their scope have to go through an application or hearing process before submitting legislation," said Carol Wagner, director of legislative services for the state's medical association.

"The idea is that scope of practice is too complex to be reviewed in a session setting alone, and the hearing is a major hurdle."

An effort to gain approval for psychologists in the state to prescribe failed in this committee several years ago, Wagner said, and no legislative bill was ever submitted.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona Psychological Assn. said the organization is not pursuing prescribing authority at this time. She also said that the association had worked with local medical organizations to demonstrate models of practice to facilitate relationships between family physicians and psychologists.

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