Public Policy Forum Blog

Enhanced Role for Nursing in Milwaukee County's Redesigned Mental Health System

Few would dispute the idea that effective mental health care relies on the quality and accessibility of health care professionals, especially nurses. As stakeholders in Milwaukee County work to redesign the county’s mental health system, one of the crucial issues they face is how to build an effective and efficient mental health nursing workforce in light of anticipated changes under the new system.

The Nursing’s Voice project is a collaborative effort of local and national foundations, higher education institutions, and other interested parties to enhance the supply of mental health nurses in Milwaukee.  As part of the project, the Forum surveyed 120 mental health nurses and 34 employers to illuminate the state of the county’s current mental health workforce and to gather insights to inform the redesign planning process and the work of Nursing's Voice.  
Survey responses identified three broad categories of need that an effective redesign effort must address – the need for training and professional development of nurses, specifically in mental health care; the need for a larger mental health nursing workforce today and in the future; and the need for nurses and employers to clarify their respective expectations about what constitutes effective mental health nursing skills and practices. In the research brief that summarizes the survey findings, the Forum describes key policy implications:
  • Because of a perceived need for nurses with an interest in mental health both now and in the future, incentives for increasing the mental health workforce might be necessary. The redesign process should also anticipate the need for more nurses. 
  • Although employers are satisfied with the mental health nurse applicant pool, very few nurses are nationally certified or advanced practice nurses. This suggests that while schools of nursing provide a basic foundation of mental health training, planners should explore possible reasons for the apparent lack of deeper knowledge and discern how this deficit will affect future service provision.
  • Employers envision a larger role for mental health nurses in outpatient/community settings. However, today most nurses work in inpatient settings. Planners should explicitly consider the optimal roles of nurses in community health settings.
  • Turnover among mental health nurses is relatively low (less than 10%) with the greatest source of job satisfaction deriving from patient care. Sources of job dissatisfaction are related to pay and advancement. If nurses’ responsibilities become more administrative or policy-oriented under a redesigned system, the reduction in patient contact may cause nurse job satisfaction to suffer (and attrition to rise), particularly if wages do not change.
  • Employers and nurses lack consensus about which skills are most important for patients’ recovery. This suggests either a lack of clear communication or differing expectations as to the job objectives. Employers and nurses should work toward greater clarity about these differences if the role of nurses is to change under a redesigned system.
  • Employers and nurses find more common ground regarding their views of the specific skills that need strengthening. Planners should therefore focus future professional development resources in these areas.
  • Both nurses and employers placed specific importance on the ability of nurses to understand the treatment needs of patients diagnosed with dual/co-occurring disorders in which mental illness coincides with substance abuse. As the county shifts its focus to dual/co-occurring disorder treatment, the need for improved training for nurses will be imperative. 

These findings could serve as guideposts to planners, employers, and nurses themselves as they navigate the uncharted territory of a redesigned mental health care system in Milwaukee County. In addition, Nursing’s Voice will play an active role over the next two years to bring the perspective of mental health nurses to both the redesign and implementation of the new system. To do this, the collaborative partnership will undertake three key activities: 1) conduct research and data collection, such as this survey, to document the current and future need for mental health nurses in the new system; 2) develop strategies to encourage nursing students to pursue a career in mental health service and to provide them with the essential skills to be successful; and 3) provide a platform for the voice of nurses so that the new mental health delivery system can make optimal use of their skills and ideas.

Anneliese Dickman