Psychiatric hospital workers warn of short staffing

A light fog shrouds a section of Atascadero State Hospital.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Doctors at a second state psychiatric hospital have complained that staffing shortages are so severe that the care of patients and safety of workers are at risk.

In an April 19 letter to state hospital officials, psychiatric staffers at Atascadero State Hospital raise “grave concern” over what they called an “increasingly severe shortage of psychiatrists at the hospital.” The letter was provided recently to The Times.


As a result, the doctors state, psychiatrists are now required to work shifts covering up to four units with a total of 150 severely ill psychiatric patients, four times higher than the standard workload.

The psychiatrists contend they cannot provide adequate treatment. They also argue against proposals to hire nurse practitioners to treat “some of the most psychiatrically ill patients” in California.

The letter, signed by 24 Atascadero psychiatrists, echoes complaints raised earlier this year at the state’s psychiatric hospital within Salinas Valley State Prison, where psychiatrists said staffing shortages had reached a “crisis level.”

Doctors at Salinas Valley referenced the recent death of a patient who managed to hang himself. A second patient died after he drank lethal amounts of water.

California state hospital officials told a federal judge overseeing mental health care of inmates that additional psychiatrists had been hired to work at Salinas Valley. Some of those psychiatrists, records show, came from Atascadero.

[Updated 8:30 p.m. May 28: The Department of State Hospitals acknowledged “an ongoing challenge to retain and recruit psychiatrists at Atascadero State Hospital” due, in part, to its location and higher salaries elsewhere. However, the department contended that staffing levels are “safe” and provide “quality treatment to our patients.” Two psychiatrists on loan to the Salinas Valley prison hospital “does not represent a significant part of staffing difficulties at Atascadero,” spokesman Ralph Montano said in a prepared response. “The Department is actively working to recruit more psychiatrists and will continue to provide a safe and therapeutic environment for our staff and patients.”]


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