Services by a Psychologist vs Services by a Psychiatrist

Dr. Gary L. Coats, Ph.D.

It is reasonable for patients to be confused when trying to understand the many types of professionals who provide behavioral health services.  One thing is clear, however:  There are distinct differences between how these professionals are trained and the services they are legally allowed to provide.  Notably, the most confusion is between a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

A psychologist is a doctoral level behavioral healthcare provider who received his doctoral degree (PhD) from a university or (PsyD) professional school of psychology. Psychiatrists attend medical schools and, upon graduation, typically complete a residency in psychiatry.  Psychiatrists typically complete residencies in treating behavioral disorders with medicines. A Primary care physician (PCP) may practice as a psychiatrist and prescribe medication without any additional specialty training beyond medical school.  Both professionals have doctor’s degrees.

Psychologists typically hold undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in psychology, in addition to their doctoral degree.  Psychologists complete residencies in medical and behavioral health settings. It is uncontested, however, that psychologists have the most extensive training and experience in treating, assessing, researching and objective diagnosing of behavioral disorders.

A Google search on each profession’s contribution to knowledge of the human brain yields the following results:  There are 4,850,000 citations for psychology and 1,620,000 for psychiatry.  This simply suggests that psychiatry has generally morphed into a limited practice of prescribing medications.  Most psychiatrists do not provide therapeutic services beyond medications.  Depending upon the state where both are licensed, psychologists and psychiatrists provide services both in inpatient and outpatient venues.  The behavioral health services include treatment, evaluations, and prescribing of medications.

Both psychologists and psychiatrists can obtain specialty certifications.  Psychologists also specialize and receive certifications and additional education and training in a wide array off specialties, including clinical psychology, neuropsychology, child psychology, medical psychology, family psychology, forensic psychology, addictions, gerontology, psychopharmacology and many others.  Psychiatry also has these specialized areas of training.  To obtain these specialties, both professionals must have additional education, training, supervision and testing.

Practitioners in psychology are ethically bound to remain conversant with and informed about the scientific foundations for our interventions, and to adapt our techniques to those proven conceptualizations of disorder and appropriate interventions. Using scientific findings and practices, the psychologist must first assess patients in such a way so as to establish an accurate diagnostic picture, which are based on specific scientific findings and aid in the selection of the most appropriate treatment.

Psychologists have long been the leaders in the development of a broad range of diagnostic tools, understanding of brain physiology, psychopharmacological agents, learning, social, and behavioral skills based on scientific bodies of evidence and related theories and techniques.  As the premier diagnosticians, providers of behavioral healthcare, and compilers of scientific evidence in the behavioral health fields, psychologists have a duty to speak out and make the public aware of effective treatments, choice of treatments, the limitations of certain treatments and of the risk/benefit analysis of certain treatment choices.