What Is Psychopharmacology?

Psychopharmacology is the study of the use of medications in treating mental disorders. The complexity of this field requires continuous study in order to keep current with new advances. Psychopharmacologists need to understand all the clinically relevant principles of pharmacokinetics (what the body does to medication) and pharmacodynamics (what the medications do to the body). This includes an understanding of

  • Protein binding (how available the medication is to the body)
  • Half-life (how long the medication stays in the body)
  • Polymorphic genes (genes which vary widely from person to person)
  • Drug-drug interactions (how medications affect one another)

Since the use of these medications is to treat mental disorders, an extensive understanding of basic neuroscience, basic psychopharmacology, clinical medicine, the differential diagnosis of mental disorders, and treatment options is required. Psychopharmacologists also must be skilled in building and utilizing a therapeutic alliance with the patient.

Who Qualifies as a Psychopharmacologist?

In a generic sense, any physician who treats patients with psychotropic medication is a psychopharmacologist. Physicians who have completed residency training after medical school have a high level of understanding and expertise in pharmacology, including psychopharmacology. Psychiatrists (who have completed four years of advanced training after medical school) have an even higher level of understanding and expertise in psychopharmacology.

The term “psychopharmacologist”, however, may also be used in a more specific sense to mean a physician with training in advanced psychopharmacology. That is, some psychiatrists specialize even further in psychopharmacology through academic education, Continuing Medical Education (CME), or self-study.

Physicians who are certified by the American Board of Medical Specialties have demonstrated a high level of understanding and expertise in pharmacology and other areas of medicine. Only board certified medical specialists are eligible to take the ASCP’s Examination in Advanced Psychopharmacology. This rigorous exam covers all areas of psychopharmacology and requires a thorough understanding of the latest science that has relevance to clinical practice. The exam must be taken every 5 years.

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