The government’s decision not to increase funding for the nurse incentive program is a missed opportunity in preventative care, writes Scott Harris
The Mental Health Nurse Incentive Program (MHNIP) has been responsible for saving lives and improving the health of a great number of people.
Up until last December, I was one of the longest serving nurses in this program and know of its power to improve the quality of life for those suffering mental illness.
The MHNIP takes a primary healthcare approach to assessing and treating mental illness and allows suitably qualified nurses to work as a specialist nurse in the area of preventative mental health.
Initially formed in mid-2007, this incentive program has not been adequately resourced to realise its full potential and as reported by Nursing Review in May, the 2012-2013 federal budget froze program funding at last year’s levels.
The capping of this program means it will no longer be able to grow. A formal review of the program has commenced by the Department of Health and Ageing but it would appear to be rather late in its developmental journey.
Overly strict guidelines, inflexible payment structure, no incentive for the practitioner nurses to continue their education, or recoup any allowances for sick days has seen this program stagnate rather than grow. The potential for this program to be a major tool in primary mental health care can be achieved by simply widening the nurse’s scope of practice under the guidelines.
Utilising the skills they must possess as a credentialed mental health nurse, these nurses could not only provide a great link between the general practitioner and public mental health services (both inpatient and community-based), they could be the referral agent to other health professionals.
With a slight change in the guidelines, these practitioners could free up time for the busy GP, by completing a mental health assessment before the client saw the doctor, thereby allowing treatments to commence sooner rather than later and assist the person to find the pathway to better health.
Early intervention is the key to lessening the overall burden of mental illness, so why not allow the specialist nurse to start the road to recovery as soon as possible? To do this, two major things need to happen: firstly, a review of the guidelines to allow the nurse more freedom to work at what they know best (some professional recognition), and secondly, a major review of funding, both in how it is funded and how much it is funded. This would mean providing the nurse with a professional pay rate, allowing for education, holidays and sick days and also contributing to making work in this environment an economically viable alternative, and an alternate career pathway.
By looking at the long-term gain and spending some money now, we could make real progress in the area of primary mental health care for all Australians. The potential to save money in the long-term, by reducing in-patient bed days, reducing lost productivity, and the number of visits required to the GP, while providing quality and easily accessible mental health care to all Australians could be achieved.
By no means am I advocating that blank Medicare cheques be given to the nurses working in this program, or to the organisations that provide these services. What I am suggesting is to allow this program to grow to its full potential, simply by changing it from an incentive program to a fully funded Medicare program.
Those in need will not have to wait until they become acutely unwell before they can commence treatment. With these subtle changes this program will finally achieve its full potential and leave its mark in healthcare.
Scott Harris is a mental health nurse and a nursing lecturer at CQUniversity. He worked as part of the Mental Health Nurse Incentive Program from its inception in 2007 until 2011.Do you have an idea for a story?
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