San Diego Business Journal

UnitedHealth Group has granted $4 million to the UC San Diego School of Medicine to encourage more students to go into the fields of child and adolescent psychiatry.

The funds will be used over the next four years for mentorship, financial aid, curriculum, clinical learning opportunities and other support.

With the grant, announced on Oct. 20, UnitedHealth and UC San Diego also hope to bring more diversity to the state’s mental health staff.

“Creating a diverse network in child and adolescent psychiatry is just really key for the state of California,” said Steve Cain, CEO for UnitedHealthcare of California. The insurer gave a similar, $4 million grant to the medical school at UC San Francisco.

It is important to pique students’ interest early in their medical school careers, before they have chosen a specialty, Cain said.

Most mental, emotional and behavioral disorders have their roots in childhood and youth, according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. In any given year, the percentage of young people with such disorders is estimated to be between 14% and 20%.

In California, the suicide rate for people ages 15-19 has increased 34% during the past four years, according to America’s Health Rankings 2020 Health of Women and Children Data Update, published by the UnitedHealth Foundation.

Shortage Seen Ahead

“There are 8,300 child and adolescent psychiatrists in our country with a projected need of over 30,000,” said Dr. Desiree Shapiro, associate clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “We need to focus on growing, diversifying and creating a more inclusive workforce to meet the needs of our state and our nation.”

The shortage is projected to get worse unless meaningful action is taken to address it, according to the California Future Health Workforce Commission.

There are 13 child and adolescent psychiatrists per 100,000 children in California, compared to 75 pediatricians per 100,000 children. By 2028, California will have only about half of the psychiatrists it will need to serve residents in need of treatment, and 28% fewer psychologists, social workers and counselors than necessary to meet the projected demand, according to the UC San Francisco’s Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies.

“2028 isn’t that far off,” Cain said, “and we really need to be getting to this from a grassroots level. We need to do it at the school of medicine level.”

An Arduous Journey

The executive said UnitedHealth chose the University of California system because “we have been great partners with them. The relationship has been in place for years.”

The medical school on Torrey Pines Mesa has already benefited from UnitedHealth’s grant. First- and second-year students were recently able to participate in a new summer immersion program that provided an introduction to the field of child and adolescent psychiatry.

“We want to provide the exposure as well as the support that is necessary to succeed in medicine,” said Shapiro, who is also director of the Child and Adolescent Inclusive Excellence Summer Program.

The program emphasizes learning from one another, as well as learning from the community.

“The medical journey is arduous and creating an understanding and encouraging network has the power to alleviate stress, promote medical student well-being and inspire future leaders to use their voices to positively impact their communities and mental health systems of care,” Shapiro said.

A Need for Diversity

UnitedHealth’s $4 million grant to UC San Francisco will fund education for medical students as well as psychiatric nurse practitioners.

The diversity component of the grant is important, Cain said. With something as sensitive as behavioral health, “you want your network to reflect the communities you live in.”

The benefits can be far-reaching.

“If you [as a patient] feel comfortable with your provider, you’ll be more engaged,” Cain said. “Inherently, outcomes will be better.”