Nationwide Shortage of Psychiatrists in Australian Health

Young unhappy girl suffering form mental breakdown during session with psychiatrist

The Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation (ASMOF), ACT branch, has raised concerns that Canberra Hospital has no permanent psychiatrist on adult acute mental health ward. According to ASMOF, a trade union which represents salaried doctors, there should be seven permanent psychiatrists on the ward but currently there are only temporary staff.

ASMOF raised concerns less than a year ago that Canberra’s mental health system was experiencing a crippling shortage of psychiatrists with eight psychiatrist vacancies across the Australian Capital Territory’s mental health, justice health, and alcohol and drug services.

ACT Health have responded that there is a permanent psychiatrist working on the adult acute mental health ward in Canberra Hospital, with four positions being filled by locums, and that the ward is adequately staffed. However ACT Health also acknowledged that there is a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists in public and private mental health services, and that ACT Health is continuing to undertake activity to fill vacant positions through national and international recruitment.

Situation likely to worsen

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialise in treating people with mental illness and support people with a range of mental health conditions. Psychiatrists in Australia work in public hospitals, community mental health services, private hospitals, and private practice.

In 2012 Health Workforce Australia undertook a comprehensive assessment of the supply and future demand of medical specialists. It found that the nation faced a critical shortage of around 450 psychiatrists by the year 2025, a figure which would almost double if Australia was unable to recruit International Medical Graduates. The assessment also found that distribution of medical specialists was uneven, with many psychiatrists being located in urban areas.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) is responsible for training, educating and representing psychiatrists in Australia and New Zealand. Last month, the RANZCP published a media release stating that the shortage of psychiatrists is contributing to the mental health crisis in rural and remote Australia. There are around 15 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in major cities, a figure which drops dramatically to only 1.4 psychiatrists per 100,000 in some remote areas.

Canberra is not a rural area, it is a major city and the capital of Australia, yet figures released last year by ACT Health showed that there were only nine psychiatrists per 100,000 people. Some residents needing psychiatric support have been forced to travel interstate to Melbourne or Sydney for treatment. The ACT Government established a task force to address the issue but psychiatrists working in Canberra are concerned that with a number of senior psychiatrists due to retire in the next couple of years, the shortage of psychiatrists is likely to worsen.