Psychiatrists fear worker shortage could hit patients

Australian psychiatrists are feeling the blues of critical workforce shortages and believe it is trickling down to their patients.

A nationwide survey of 1269 members of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists in December showed seven out of 10 had experienced burnout symptoms in the past three years.

Over the same span, almost 80 per cent of those surveyed observed an increase in burnout symptoms among colleagues.

Respondents cited workforce shortages (more than eight out of 10), an under-resourced system (eight out of 10), workloads (seven out of 10) and moral injury and feeling disempowered (almost six in 10) as contributing factors for burnout.

More than nine out of 10 (93 per cent) agreed the current workforce crisis negatively impacted patient care.

RANZCP president Elizabeth Moore said workforce wellbeing and patient outcomes had a close relationship.

"Research shows the conditions that lead to burnout are also the conditions that negatively impact patient outcomes," Dr Moore said.

"It's important we take this seriously."

Of those surveyed, more than three out of 10 said they were considering leaving the profession in the next five years.

Australia already had a "critical and chronic shortage" of psychiatrists and they were distributed unevenly across the country, Dr Moore said.

She said psychiatrists and mental health staff were working around the clock to make up for the shortfalls but described the situation as "untenable", calling for action from Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Health Minister Mark Butler.

"In the upcoming federal budget, we need proactive, targeted and sustainable investment in the workforce so no Australian misses out on life saving and essential mental health services," Dr Moore said.

Mr Butler said his government was committed to reforming the mental health and suicide prevention systems, ensuring that Australians receive equitable access to the care they need.

"The government acknowledges there are challenges in the current supply and distribution of the mental health workforce and the associated impact this has on service delivery, particularly in regional, rural and remote areas," Mr Butler told AAP. 

He said a significant investment had already been made in measures to grow and support the mental health workforce, including $109.1 million in the 2023-24 Budget to address bottlenecks in the psychology training pipeline and to upskill the broader health workforce in mental health.

 "We restored bulk billed video telehealth psychiatry consultations from 1 November 2022 to address affordability and access to psychiatry services in regional and rural Australia," he said.

"RANZCP’s submission will be considered as part of the normal Budget process."

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