AltaPointe Health Working to Turn Around the Shortage of Psychiatrists


AltaPointe Health is Alabama’s largest behavioral healthcare provider, treating more than 30,000 individuals each year across seven counties. Its continuum has expanded to include a full-service pharmacy, primary care and, now, a division of education to tackle the ever-growing shortage of such providers, especially psychiatrists, across the nation.

In 2003, AltaPointe Health took on the task of training students enrolled in the psychiatric nurse practitioner program at three universities across Alabama: University of Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham and University of South Alabama.

Over the course of 15 years, AltaPointe physicians and nurse practitioners have trained about 100 psychiatric certified registered nurse practitioners (PCRNP), and AltaPointe has hired a large percentage of those trained. Sandra Parker, M.D., AltaPointe’s chief medical officer, said most of the other PCRNPs continue work in Alabama.

That program laid the foundation for what is becoming known as the AltaPointe Division of Education, which is creating a culture of mentoring and a dedicated track designed to attract and prepare psychiatric residents.

In 2004, third-year medical students at the University of South Alabama began a doing a psychiatric rotation with AltaPointe Health. Out of that collaboration, a partnership between USA and AltaPointe blossomed, and in 2007 the psychiatry residency program officially began. Seven years later, the Child & Adolescent Fellowship program began. To date, six of the fellows have graduated, all have passed their boards and five are working for AltaPointe.

AltaPointe psychiatrists serve as faculty for the College of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and have won numerous honors, including the Red Sash Award, which is given by the senior class of the College of Medicine to the faculty members who have had the most meaningful input into their medical education.

“Since starting the program at USA, we have seen the percentage of medical students entering psychiatry surpass the national average by more than double,” Parker said. “It is a true testament to the program and our physicians. We currently receive 500 to 1,000 applications each year for our psychiatric residency program.”

AltaPointe welcomed five new medical students in 2018 who will pursue careers in psychiatry and have the opportunity to learn from AltaPointe’s physicians, who have decades of experience. “We are pleased to welcome such a strong group of residents to the department of psychiatry,” said Luke Engeriser, M.D., deputy chief medical officer and residency training director.

AltaPointe’s impact on the education of medical students is also felt by people entering the physician assistant program at the University of South Alabama. In 2008, AltaPointe physicians became faculty for the program and train approximately 35 students each year. Similar to the College of Medicine, AltaPointe psychiatrists have garnered numerous awards from the PA school for teaching.

Parker said AltaPointe became a core site for the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine in Dothan when it began in 2013. Each year, between seven and ten third- and fourth-year medical students spend their time with AltaPointe doing psychiatry and other rotations. The program is showing growth and yielding success. “We will be signing a letter of intent to increase this number by five students per year,” Parker said. “ACOM students receive higher scores in psychiatry than any other program on the COMAT exam.” COMATs are taken at the end of a course or clinical rotation and are designed to assess an osteopathic student’s achievement level in that subject.

The future is bright for AltaPointe’s Division of Education. “AltaPointe has received approval for a permanent increase to five psychiatry residents per year, and we are in the process of obtaining a permanent increase to three fellows per year,” Parker said. “In July 2019, we will begin an addiction medicine fellowship, and we are working toward a family medicine residency focused on psychiatry.”