RWJF Grantee Helps Rebuild Milwaukee's Public Health Nursing Workforce

Executive Nurse Fellows alumna leads RWJF-funded effort to encourage nursing students to consider careers in public and community health nursing.

    • November 28, 2011

The Milwaukee area is no longer the hotbed of public and community health nursing that it once was, thanks to successive waves of budget cuts to local health departments over the last half century, an aging public health workforce, and lower salaries that make recruitment and retention of public health nurses difficult.

A small but committed team of nurses in the Milwaukee area has been working to reverse that trend and help the area restore its place as a national leader in public and community health nursing.

The effort began as debate was heating up over the new health reform law, which placed a great emphasis on the kind of prevention and community-based services often provided by public and community health nurses, and as the economic crisis left countless people in greater need of community and public health nursing services.

“It was ironic,” said Paula Lucey, MSN, RN, an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellows program (1999-2001) who spearheaded the project. “We were in a position where demand for public health nursing services was high but the supply was very low.”

To build the pipeline, Lucey teamed up with colleagues at the Faye McBeath Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation established by the late Faye McBeath in 1964 that focuses on health and health education and other areas. Together, they created a unique program to reform local nurse education programs so that students are exposed to the field of public health nursing and learn about ways to land hard-to-find jobs in the field.

The program was funded by Partners Investing in Nursing’s Future (PIN), a partnership of RWJF and the Northwest Health Foundation that supports the capacity, involvement and leadership of local foundations to advance the nursing profession in their own communities. Two other Milwaukee-based funders—the Northwestern Mutual Foundation and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation—also actively supported the project.

Nurses Tackle Public Health Nursing Shortage from the Ground Up

The centerpiece of the program—called the Wisconsin Center for Nursing (WCN) Scholars— took a two-pronged approach to the problem: reviewing nursing school curricula at area colleges to ensure that nurses get adequate exposure to the field and creating student internships in community and public health nursing. Lucey also teamed up with WCN Executive Director Judith Hansen, MS, BSN, RN, who was a liaison for the LEAP Project, a statewide federal grant to build the public health nursing workforce.

“We have been trying for a long time to help our nursing students think about public health as a career path,” said Lea Acord, RN, PhD, a professor of nursing at Marquette University. “It’s a very hard thing to do. Nursing students don’t get a lot of exposure to public health in school and, often, public health agencies don’t hire new graduates. This project provided a very intensive experience for nursing students and showed public health nursing agencies that public health nurses can be hired right after graduation.”

The three-year program, which concluded in 2010, was a success, officials said. Seventeen students participated, and eight have since taken jobs in public or community health settings. All participants emerged with a stronger understanding of the field, which they can apply in all health care settings, Lucey said. “The WCN Scholars program was a special privilege and great learning experience,” one participant wrote in a survey about the program. “I am a better nurse because I participated in WCN Scholars placement and training.”

In addition, the program established new public and community health clinical sites for nursing students, strengthened nurse education curricula at 10 local nursing schools, and raised awareness about the value of public and community health nursing at area universities and at local charities and philanthropies.

The Faye McBeath Foundation, meanwhile, placed a greater emphasis on grants related to nursing as a result of the project. “We now understand the central role nursing plays in both health care and community health,” said Executive Director Scott Gelzer. “Our participation in the PIN project, along with new alliances with over a dozen community worksites and the area’s nursing schools, has been pivotal in our grantmaking.”

“I think we can be really proud of what we’ve done in Wisconsin,” Hansen said. “This project, along with the LEAP project, helped to put us at the forefront of the effort to rebuild public and community health nursing.”