Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health care. They evaluate and treat mental disorders through a variety of approaches, including psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, medication, and, in extreme cases, hospitalization. Psychiatrists look at a combination of biological, psychological, and social elements when evaluating their patients. Their work includes counseling patients by discussing past and present experiences to aide them in changing problematic behavioral and psychological patterns. Because of their direct involvement with patient medical care, psychiatrists must have extensive education, training, and proper licensing. Even after completing medical school and a four-year residency program, prospective psychiatrists must receive a physician's license in the state they wish to practice, certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and the appropriate narcotics license before they can practice.

No one can practice medicine without a license from their state.

Dr. Deborah HalesDirector of the American Psychiatric Association’s Division of Education

Getting Licensure and Certification in Psychiatry

In order to prepare for a career as a psychiatrist, you must earn a bachelor's degree, being sure to meet all pre-medicine requirements, and complete four years of medical school, followed by a four-year residency. Psychiatry students can specialize in a variety of subfields, such as child and adolescent psychiatry, neuropsychiatry, addiction psychiatry, or forensic psychiatry. During their residency period, students receive clinical training in diagnosis, patient care, psychotherapies, and psychopharmacology. Those who are specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry are required to meet additional residency requirements that usually add one to two years to their residency period.

Psychiatrists must also obtain a general physician's license from the state in which they are going to work. "It's the same for all physicians," said Dr. Deborah Hales, director of the American Psychiatric Association's division of education. "No one can practice medicine without a license from their state." This application process usually takes place at some point during their residency. Requirements for this license vary from state to state, but will mandate applicants pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Please note, the specifics of state licensure should be verified by the state's medical board.

In addition to receiving a general physician's license, after the completion of their residency, prospective psychiatrists must also pass the written and oral board examinations by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). This exam will measure an applicant's competency in the broad field of medicine, psychiatry, and any specializations for which they wish to be certified. Psychiatrists are also expected to demonstrate proficiency in neurology.

Since psychiatrists are medical doctors and allowed to prescribe medication, they must receive a federal narcotics license and registration number from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in order to begin their practice. Some states may also require a state narcotics license. Psychiatrists must renew their federal narcotics license every three years. The DEA will send out a renewal notice 45 days before your license runs out. Renewal requirements for state narcotics licenses should be verified by the appropriate state entity.

Maintaining Licensure and Certification in Psychiatry

The length of time a state physician's license is valid varies by state. "Most states require renewal every two years," noted Hales. However, the specifics of the renewal process should be confirmed by the state's medical board. If a psychiatrist wishes to practice in a different state, they may be able to obtain a new state license without further examination, but some states can limit this reciprocity. Psychiatrists must renew their ABPN certification every 10 years. The four main factors considered for recertification as part of the board's Maintenance of Certification Program (MOC) are proof of an unrestricted medical license in at least one state, self-assessment and continuing education, cognitive expertise, and performance in practice.

"Physicians need to keep up with scientific and clinical advances in the field for the benefit of their patients," said Hales. The MOC program supports a commitment to lifetime learning and professional development. In order to ensure continued clinical competency, the program requires psychiatrists to participate in sanctioned self-assessments, which measure performance and identify areas in their knowledge that could use improvement. After these evaluations, psychiatrists are then charged with pursuing learning opportunities and courses, called continuing medical education (CME) credits, to strengthen their work in clinical practice.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) provides a variety of resources to help psychiatrists meet their recertification requirements. "APA offers CME credits, self-assessments, and performance modules to assist with board recertification," explained Hales. Classes cover topics including research literacy, practice guidelines, and treatment options for patients. "Advances in genetics, neuroscience, psychopharmacology, psychotherapy, new treatments, and understanding of psychiatric disorders are particularly important to stay up to date with," noted Hales.

Many private colleges also offer online courses for psychiatrists looking to fulfill their continuing education requirements. The flexibility of this online format makes it especially convenient for working professionals with busy schedules. "Adult learners appreciate a variety of modalities for learning," said Hales. "In person meetings and lectures, reading books and journals, self-assessment instruments, and online learning are all important to have available." Psychiatrists should complete an average of 30 course credits a year throughout their certification period to meet the MOC requirements. Please note, the ABPN reserves the right to reject credit for any courses. Therefore, it is best to verify if the course meets their requirements before enrolling.

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