Political and managerial attention has focused on the consequences of the failure of community services to provide effective care to a small number of people with severe mental illness. However, the nature and value of care in hospitals have received less scrutiny. This paper addresses deficiencies in our knowledge about nursing care in acute psychiatric wards. It reports the findings from a recently completed study for the United Kingdom Department of Health. Four key developments are identified which, together, pose significant problems for nursing in acute wards: the increasingly diverse patient mix in wards; the volume of administrative duties performed by nurses; the weakness of multidisciplinary team working; and inappropriate education. In conclusion, the challenges for managers and clinicians responsible for local policy and practice and, by extension, those at the centre responsible for such services, are examined.