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A critical shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health workers may stymie any ambitious plans hatched by the Government's newly announced mental health inquiry.
Workforce planning is included in the panel's terms of reference, and the College of Psychiatrists yesterday warned finding a way to boost the number of medical students opting to specialise in mental health was imperative.
``There are going to be severe shortages if we don't intervene, whether that is by creating a financial incentive, paying for student loans or whatever,'' college chairman Mark Lawrence said.
Societal stigmas about mental health also affected health trainees, and the sector needed to overcome those prejudices to develop a pool of talented medical students who wanted to be psychiatrists, Dr Lawrence said.
Otherwise, there would be too few trained staff to provide services.
``Health Workforce New Zealand had already predicted psychiatry to be a very vulnerable specialty ... so the strategy will need to look at putting in policies and recommendations which will help invest in those that are going to come into psychiatry, not just doctors but right across the board.''
The Government last week delivered one of its election promises and set up a ministerial inquiry into mental health and addiction services.
The six-member panel, to be chaired by former health and disability commissioner Ron Paterson, has been given a broad mandate and a short time to carry out its work - it is due to report back to Government by the end of October.
The terms of reference for the inquiry say the panel will make recommendations in eight areas, including workforce planning, training, support and management.
Dr Lawrence said the whole mental health sector faced severe pressure finding staff, and recent statistics showed there were almost 200 vacancies across New Zealand.
Many New Zealand-trained psychiatrists moved overseas, which meant New Zealand depended on foreign psychiatrists to fill those vacancies - 59% of psychiatrists working here trained overseas.
``If we cut that pathway, our mental health system would collapse, that's how heavily we rely on that workforce.''
Equally as worrying for Dr Lawrence was the ageing workforce and population.
Psychiatrists had an average age of 50, so a large percentage were due to retire soon - meaning a lack of capacity to treat the expected surge in dementia patients.
``The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists did a paper on this,'' Dr Lawrence said.
``They say we need one old age specialist per 10,000 population and what we currently have is one specialist per 17,000 ... and they are in major city centres, so it will be a major concern in rural settings.''
Dr Lawrence welcomed the inquiry, saying: ``We have got to start somewhere, so not being able to deliver in terms of workforce concerns shouldn't be a reason not to proceed with the review, which is overdue.''
Kerry Hand, manager of Dunedin needs assessment agency Miramare, said he had not had an issue finding good people.
``My view is that outfits who are progressive will attract the good staff, and the opposite applies.''
Workforce planning was an issue, with positions not allocated in regions needing mental health services.
``My view is the future for mental health services lies in the primary area, and the Southern DHB has proposed excellent plans for overall primary services in its newly announced strategy,'' he said.
``If the multi-function Health Care Homes are well run to their good potential, I believe that excellent specialists of all kinds will happily sign up to offer services.''