At the recent annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), a talk by Dr. Laura Roberts caught my attention. In her presentation on “living up to our commitments,” Dr. Roberts, the new chair of Psychiatry at Stanford, described a dire situation for psychiatry in 2011. While some of the most disabling and deadly medical problems, neuropsychiatric illnesses, have become the leading source of medical disability in this country1, the discipline of psychiatry is often still struggling with issues of stigma, scandal, and self-doubt.
Consider these numbers. While 37.6% of practicing physicians are age 55 or older, in psychiatry nearly 55% are in this age range, ranking as the second oldest group of physicians, surpassed only by preventive medicine. Part of this aging cohort effect is the low rate of medical school graduates choosing psychiatry. Only 4% of US medical school seniors (n = 698) applied for one of the 1097 post-graduate year one training positions in psychiatry2. As Dr. Roberts noted, it is troubling that the area of medicine addressing the leading source of medical disability is also facing a shortage of new talent. Indeed, over the past decade the number of psychiatry training programs has fallen (from 186 to 181) and the number of graduates has dropped from 1,142 in 2000 to 985 in 2008. In spite of the national shortage of psychiatrists, especially child psychiatrists, 16 residency training programs did not fill with either U.S. or foreign medical graduates in 20113.
Beyond these numbers, the profession is struggling with its identity, a theme echoed in other plenary talks at the APA meeting. Traditionally, psychiatry has been the medical discipline that cultivates a rich relationship with patients, countering suffering with empathy and understanding. But a recent article in the New York Times reported that only 11% of psychiatrists perform psychotherapy and described a psychiatrist who ran his office “like a bus station,” seeing so many patients for 5 -10 minute medication checks that he had to train himself not to listen to his patient’s problems4….
Tom Insel, M.D.