Atascadero State Hospital faces shortage of psychiatrists

Number of doctors on staff is down about 33 percent since September 2012, forcing facility to admit fewer patients, close unit

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comOctober 27, 2013 

Atascadero State Hospital

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Atascadero State Hospital is admitting fewer patients each week and has closed one of its special admission units in response to a shortage of psychiatrists there. 

The forensic hospital, which treats mentally ill violent offenders, has about 22.5 psychiatrists on staff, down from 33.7 in September 2012, according to the Department of State Hospitals. That’s a staff reduction of about 33 percent in a facility licensed for 1,275 patients.

“It’s spreading them thin.  It’s not good for the treatment of the patients or the safety of the doctors,” said Dr. Stuart Bussey, president of the American Physicians and Dentists employee union that represents the facility’s doctors.

Chronic staffing shortages at Atascadero State Hospital aren’t new. 

In 2007, ASH began restricting patient admissions for the first time after a so-called exodus of clinical workers transferred to state prisons.

“The department faces an ongoing challenge to retain and recruit psychiatrists at (Atascadero) due to several factors including geographic location of the facility and the higher salaries offered at other psychiatric facilities and health providers,” said Ralph Montaño, a spokes-man for the Department of State Hospitals.

Atascadero is one of five state hospitals. The goal is to stabilize patients through medication, therapy and daily programs so offenders can return to trial or prison within an average of six months. 

In addition to providing ongoing treatment, the hospital’s psychiatrists are part of a team that assesses newly admitted patients to determine what types of treatment they need.

This year, the psychiatrist staffing shortage got to a point where the caseload of incoming patients exceeded the number of psychiatrists available, so patient admissions were reduced in September from 24 to 15 per week and one of two units dedicated to admitting patients deemed incompetent to stand trial was closed this month, Montaño confirmed. 

“DSH-Atascadero is making every effort to recruit psychiatrists and anticipates lifting the suspension soon,” Montaño said in an email.

Additional details on what the facility is doing to attract more psychiatrists weren’t given.

In August, the California Men’s Colony, a state prison outside San Luis Obispo, opened a new 50-bed mental health center.

The Department of State Hospitals was unable to confirm Friday whether Atascadero lost psychiatrists to that new facility. 

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