The picture of the shortage of mental health providers has been brought into focus with the formation of a new national database.
Researchers from George Washington University have published a comprehensive national database of all primary care providers, behavioral health specialists, and other medical specialists who have prescribed more than 11 behavioral health medications in 2020.
Researchers say the database, based on IQVIA Xponent retail prescription data, state and nationwide licensing data, and supplier enumeration system, is the first of its kind.
“It’s hard to know how many other suppliers are needed if we don’t even know the current number of suppliers they operate or where they are,” says a health affairs article written by the researchers. “It’s easy to call more behavioral health workers. But without better data, public and private efforts to increase supply may not be effectively targeted at the communities most in need. “
Anecdotal evidence of a shortage of mental health providers abound.
In some cases, leading behavioral health professionals like Acadia Healthcare Inc. (Nasdaq: ACHC) are looking at mergers and acquisitions and joint ventures as a way to grow the shortage.
In others, national acute and behavioral hospital operators such as Universal Health Services (NYSE: UHS) have struggled to find the staff needed to run behavioral health facilities, even paying premium rates for temporary staff.
The database shows that the United States in 2020 had approximately 1.2 million health care workers who could be considered mental health providers.
About half (600,000) are behavioral health specialists: psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and the like. The rest are advanced practitioners, primary care physicians, and other physicians who show some involvement in behavioral health based on their prescribing activity.
The database also tracks, down to the county level, where these suppliers are domiciled. These data confirm many previous insights into the disparate geographic distribution by population of these suppliers.
The northeastern states have the highest concentrations of psychiatrists and addiction providers, while the southern and western states have some of the lowest.
In Connecticut, there is one psychiatrist / addiction medicine specialist for every 3,113 residents. Oklahoma, a comparable population state, has 9,570 residents per psychiatrist / addiction medicine specialist.
The researchers also found that about 50 percent of all U.S. counties don’t have a psychiatrist or addiction medicine specialist, while about 23 percent of all behavioral health prescribers saw no Medicaid beneficiaries.
The researchers also highlighted the disproportionate role primary care providers play in the behavioral health system relative to their relative share of the workforce. Nationwide, there are approximately 400,000 primary care providers providing behavioral health care, including nurses and medical assistants.
There are 558 primary care providers in the database compared to 1,618 prescription specialists. Primary care providers have prescribed 224 million behavioral health medications, about 2.68 times more than prescribed by behavioral health specialists.
“At a time of national mental health crisis, having a reliable source of active workforce data for behavioral health is more important than ever,” continues the article on health affairs.
Previous federal research highlights the shortage of mental health service providers and estimates how many providers are needed to meet a state’s needs. The researchers who created the database did not make comparable estimates.
Federal research shows that the United States would require approximately 6,600 new mental health professionals to meet demand in areas that the federal government designates as areas of health care shortage.