Shrinking Pool of Psychiatrists Means Long Wait for Those in Need

By Sam KennedyContact Reporter of The Morning Call

March 18, 2017

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Sue Drabic of Allentown knew right away something was wrong with a family member, a college student at the time.

“He was having delusional statements, like talking about saving the world,” she said, recalling the episode. “He was saying it in a way that you could tell he was serious about it.”

All Drabic wanted, as would anyone in her shoes, was help for her loved one — and right away. What she got instead was an initiation into the state of psychiatry.

“[He] had to go all the way to Philadelphia because there were no beds in the Lehigh Valley,” she said.

He came back weeks later heavily sedated, barely able to function.

Eager to have his prescription altered, she called for an appointment with a local psychiatrist only to find out the next opening was in five to six months, she said.

“It’s hard for someone to get the news that someone they care about is very ill and then to have to wait,” she said.

Eight years later, the situation is much the same. A shortage of psychiatrists in the Lehigh Valley, statewide and nationally means limited options and long waits are still the norm, according to health care professionals, advocates and patients and their families. Specialists, such as pediatric or geriatric psychiatrists, are in even shorter supply.

For those in crisis, the stakes couldn’t be higher, said Muhamad Aly Rifai, president-elect of the Lehigh Valley Psychiatric Association. These are people who might be experiencing thoughts of suicide or paranoia, and their erratic behavior can be a danger to themselves and others. Some end up in not a hospital bed but a jail cell.

“We see this all the time, ” said Rifai, chief psychiatrist and internist at Blue Mountain Psychiatry in Lower Nazareth Township. “Every day.”

As bad as the problem is in the Lehigh Valley, it’s just as bad or even worse in many other places. Roughly half the country, including a swath of downtown Allentown and about 120 other parts of Pennsylvania, have been identified as mental health professional shortage areas by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, meaning they have only one psychiatrist for every 30,000 or more people.

The problem is projected to only get worse in the not-too-distant future, in part because mental health disorders appear to be becoming more common or at least more recognized, and because a disproportionate number of psychiatrists are older and approaching retirement.