In the vast majority of cases, researchers posing as patients were unable to make an appointment with psychiatrists they called in Boston, Chicago and Houston. (Shutterstock)

In the vast majority of cases, researchers posing as patients were unable to make an appointment with psychiatrists they called in Boston, Chicago and Houston. (Shutterstock)

Making an appointment with a psychiatrist is often an uphill battle no matter if you’re insured or if you intend to pay out of pocket, a new study suggests.

In a secret-shopper test, researchers posing as patients attempted to make appointments with hundreds of psychiatrists in three major metro areas, but were only successful a quarter of the time.

Instead, calls frequently went unanswered or doctors said they were not accepting new patients even in cases where callers said they had private insurance or were willing to pay out of pocket, according to findings published online Wednesday in the journal Psychiatric Services.

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For the study, researchers telephoned 360 psychiatrists split evenly across the Boston, Chicago and Houston metropolitan areas. In each case, the caller requested an appointment and indicated that they had Medicare, intended to pay themselves or said they had a PPO plan with Blue Cross and Blue Shield — the largest health insurer in each of the three locales.

All of the psychiatrists were listed in the local Blue Cross and Blue Shield database of in-network providers.

Callers were only successful in making appointments with 93 doctors, researchers said. Meanwhile, 15 percent of practices indicated that they were not accepting new patients and another 10 percent said they did not see general adult outpatients.

In nearly a quarter of cases, however, the physicians’ offices did not return calls and 16 percent of the phone numbers were incorrect, leading callers to a jewelry store and a McDonald’s in some cases.

Researchers said their findings illustrate how difficult it is to access mental health care.

“Everyone, even individuals with supposedly excellent insurance, has a hard time accessing psychiatric care,” said J. Wesley Boyd of Harvard Medical School, a senior author of the study.

Boyd said that a “comprehensive overhaul of psychiatric care” is needed.