Kaiser Permanente: California Leaders Address Shortage of Mental Health Workers

Originally Published by Kaiser Permanente.

The California Future Health Workforce Commission issued its findings on the growing shortage of health care workers in California, including mental health professionals, in the face of steadily increasing demands for health care services throughout the state.


Formed in 2017, the commission is composed of a statewide group of senior leaders representing health, education, employment, labor, and government. They are tasked with identifying opportunities for the health workforce to further meet the changing needs of the state’s diverse population.

“One of the wisest things that the commission did at the outset was make the decision to focus on three priority areas: mental health, healthy aging, and primary care,” said Pat Courneya, MD, commission member and chief medical officer for National Health Plan and Hospitals Quality at Kaiser Permanente.

“In particular, mental health presents an incredible challenge,” Dr. Courneya said. “The demand for effective mental health services is growing continuously and the supply of well-trained mental health workers who reflect the populations we’re trying to serve is just not up to the demand.”

Pat Courneya, MD, discusses the importance of California anticipating technology and changes in health care when building the health workforce of tomorrow.

According to the Commission’s findings, nearly 17 percent of Californians have mental health needs, and 1 in 20 has a serious mental health condition. Among those, about two-thirds of California adults with a mental illness and two-thirds of adolescents with major depressive episodes do not receive the treatment they need.

At the same time, the Commission projects that over the next decade California will have 41 percent fewer psychiatrists and 11 percent fewer psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical counselors, and social workers than needed.

Kaiser Permanente has recognized this workforce challenge for some time and is deeply committed to providing quality mental health care for its members. Despite this shortage in California, Kaiser Permanente has increased the number of therapists on its staff by 30 percent since 2015. Kaiser Permanente also is helping to address the shortage through training programs at its medical centers for postdoctoral residents and post-master’s fellows. The ACGME (Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education) has accredited two new Kaiser Permanente Adult Psychiatry residency programs, in the East Bay and San Jose medical centers, starting in 2019. This demonstrates the organization’s commitment to educating and training a full array of mental health clinicians for the future. And, the Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine, now under construction, will incorporate a comprehensive mental health curriculum for new physicians.

At the same time, Kaiser Permanente invested more than $175 million in 2018 to expand and enhance treatment facilities specifically designed to provide mental health care. To make care convenient and accessible, the organization has doubled the number of its mental health tele-visits since 2016 and is making it possible for members to receive mental health care throughout Kaiser Permanente by embedding mental health professionals in primary care offices, emergency departments, and community settings.

Kaiser Permanente still has work to do to continue providing members access to the mental health care they need.

As Dr. Courneya affirmed, “We health care leaders, lawmakers, citizens, and educators need to come together to tackle this issue, as the commission recommends, to put us on the right path to recruit, train, and retain more psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health workers who reflect the populations we serve.”

Kaiser Permanente has some of the best and brightest minds in health care. With its employees and physicians’ teamwork, dedication, and leadership, the organization can continue to address this growing challenge and lead the way in delivering high-quality, affordable care for total health mind, body, and spirit.

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