The rate of unfilled NHS consultant psychiatrist posts in England has doubled in the last six years, a survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows.
One in 10 posts are vacant – 568 posts out of a total of 5,730 (9.9%) – up from one in 20 in 2013 (5.2%).
Vacancy rates are particularly high in areas of mental health care prioritised by the Government for improvement, prompting fears that plans to transform services over the next 10 years under a major investment programme will fail.
Rates across the UK vary: in Scotland that figure is 9.7%, in Northern Ireland 7.5% and in Wales 12.7%. Across the UK that rate is 9.6%.
The “alarming” findings come at a time of soaring demand for mental health care, with a shortage of psychiatrists contributing to the lengthy waits for treatment many patients face. The impact on patients’ lives can be devastating, including divorce, debt and job losses.
The Government’s ambitious long-term plan to transform NHS mental health care by 2029 is welcome, but will fail unless this shortage is addressed, the College says.
Although access to children’s mental health services in England is improving, currently only 35% of those with mental illness get treatment. Earlier this year, a report published by the College found that people with eating disorders can wait up to 41 months for treatment, with adults waiting on average 30% longer than under-18s.
Similarly, many patients are still being sent away from their local area for treatment. Official data shows between April and June there was a 21% rise in the number of inappropriate out-of-area bed days in England, compared to the same time last year.
Professor Wendy Burn, the College’s President, said: “These findings are very alarming.The Government’s plans will fail unless more junior doctors choose psychiatry. We know exactly what is needed and action must be taken now to implement practical solutions which will make the NHS a better place to work.We must urgently address some of the burning issues around the NHS workforce, such as the pensions crisis and unacceptable levels of work-related stress.”
The census, to be published in the coming weeks, also showed huge regional variations in psychiatric staffing levels, confirming patients also face a postcode lottery of care.