If you’re looking for a nursing specialty that allows you to educate others, monitor trends and data, and make an impact on underserved communities, becoming a Public Health Nurse could be a good choice for you.
These nurses think in terms of the “big picture,” and their work helps protect entire populations of people.
Sometimes this specialty takes the form of the Community Clinic Public Health Nurse, who may perform health screenings or administer vaccines. Other times, it may be a Government Agency Public Health Nurse, who might do anything from conducting epidemiological research to organizing immunization clinics.
Clearly, there’s a lot of variation in the field of Public Health Nursing.
However, in this article, we’ll try to simplify this nursing specialty by explaining what they can do, how they differ from other nurses, how much they make, and how to become one.
Table of Contents
- What Is A Public Health Nurse?
- Why Is Public Health Nursing Important?
- What Does A Public Health Nurse Do?
- Where Do Public Health Nurses Work?
- Public Health Nurse Salary
- Public Health Nursing Examples
- How To Become A Public Health Nurse
- Public Health Nurse Certification
- Is Public Health Nursing Hard?
- Should You Become A Public Health Nurse?
What Is A Public Health Nurse?
A Public Health Nurse is a type of Registered Nurse that works to promote and improve health at the community level. This typically includes:
- Educating a community about potential health risks
- Promoting healthy behaviors
- Increasing access to care
Public Health Nursing encompasses a wide range of responsibilities and roles, but the primary goal is improving and maintaining the health of an entire population by preventing disease and illness.
For example, Public Health Nurses may monitor health trends and threats that could negatively impact communities. By staying up-to-date on current trends, they can help inform policy at the government, hospital, or even school level.
Additionally, by keeping populations educated with best health practices and teaching them where they can access low-cost or free healthcare, they increase access to healthcare in communities that otherwise may not receive any.
Increasing access to care also makes it easier to monitor health trends in these communities and provide any interventions that may need to be made before an illness has a chance to spread.
Public Health Nurse vs Clinical Nurse
While Public Health Nurses and Clinical Nurses are both types of RNs, the key difference between them is that Public Health Nurses focus on community health, whereas Clinical Nurses focus on providing direct, on-one-care.
In other words, Clinical Nurses wait for patients to come seek treatment at a traditional healthcare facility, whereas Public Health Nurses go into communities to prevent illness and improve community health.
While Public Health Nurses can participate in delivering one-on-one care, their primary role is improving overall outcomes for entire populations. This allows them to contribute to initiatives that promote health for everyone in a particular community.
Clinical Nurses, on the other hand, provide direct care to and develop treatment plans for individual patients. Clinical Nurses may help patients understand how to take preventive care measures for themselves, but they are more typically involved in providing direct health interventions, as opposed to promoting healthy practices in the entire community.
Public Health Nurse vs Community Health Nurse
While Public Health Nursing does encompass Community Health Nursing, there are some differences between the two.
For example, Public Health Nurses are trained on how to assess the overall population, while Community Health Nurses are only trained to assess the needs of individual patients and families within the population they work with.
Additionally, whereas Public Health Nursing focuses more on the scientific process of preventing disease and illness, Community Health Nurses take a more holistic view of the contributors affecting health within a population.
Finally, the work setting tends to be different for these types of nurses. Community Health Nurses usually work on a more localized scale, often state- or county-level positions or at local hospitals. Meanwhile, Public Health Nurses typically work in a wider range of work settings which we discuss in further detail below.
Why Is Public Health Nursing Important?
One reason Public Health Nursing is important is that, when implemented correctly, it can improve access to care, especially in underserved communities. When more people can access care, we’re able to better monitor health trends and provide early intervention, so the entire public is healthier.
For example, if a new disease spreads rapidly through a community with no access to care, we can’t monitor the illness until it starts spreading to populations that have the means to seek care. The longer we have to wait for an illness to be identified, the more time it has to spread.
Additionally, effective public health nursing strategies improve long-term health within a specific population. By advocating for preventative health measures in the community as a whole, they help to lower the overall health-related burdens on the community and local care providers.
After all, without the education and disease prevention measures that Public Health Nurses contribute to, hospitals could become overwhelmed with patients, leading to worse patient outcomes.
By monitoring community health, Public Health Nurses help medical systems prepare for negative health-related events, like new or rapidly-spreading diseases.
By promoting community health, Public Health Nurses help ensure healthcare facilities don’t become overloaded with patients with preventable illnesses.
Finally, as a nurse, you provide a valuable and unique perspective compared to other members of a Public Health team. Since you probably have direct experience working bedside with patients, you can better understand the way various public health initiatives may be perceived by patients.
What Does A Public Health Nurse Do?
A Public Health Nurse can perform all the duties of a Registered Nurse, but their primary goal is typically improving community-wide health. In fact, their responsibilities often require no clinical work, instead working with datasets, organizing community resources, and providing education and consultation.
While the duties of a Public Health Nurse may vary a lot from role to role, some of their main responsibilities typically include the following.
1. Organizing and Providing Health Services
A key responsibility of Public Health Nurses is providing health services to those in the community. For example, they often play a key role in running blood drives and administering vaccines and immunizations.
Additionally, they may contribute by completing tasks like directing care resources, educating patients, and performing screenings at a health clinic.
For new Public Health nurses and those with no Master’s degree, this will likely make up the bulk of your job until you gain some experience in this speciality area. Once you better understand how public health services are organized and delivered, you’ll be better prepared to take on more leadership-, research-, and administrative-oriented roles.
2. Analyzing Data and Identifying Trends
One advanced duty of Public Health Nurses is analyzing and collecting population data. This allows them to both monitor health trends, as well as identify potential health risks to the community.
Additionally, these nurses may help identify patterns of domestic violence and child neglect within communities.
Using this data, Public Health Nurses collaborate with other healthcare professionals to develop and implement new health initiatives.
3. Educating the Community and Other Healthcare Professionals
Another main duty Public Health Nurses carry out is education, and this includes both educating the community and other healthcare professionals.
When it comes to educating the public, these nurses may be tasked with finding clever ways to spread awareness about a particular health issue or prevention strategy. For example, they may work alongside marketing professionals to deliver a clear, far-reaching, and accurate message.
Meanwhile, Public Health Nurses may also be tasked with educating fellow health professionals and informing hospitals about recurring health-related patterns within a particular type of population.
A strong desire to educate and good communications skills are absolute must-haves for Public Health Nurses.
4. Planning for Disease Outbreaks
Though the last thing most people want to think about is a potential disease outbreak, being prepared for a worst case scenario is critical.
As a Public Health Nurse, you may be tasked with collaborating on plans that help healthcare facilities prepare for events like mass contamination, environmental, or biohazardous events.
To help prepare these plans, it’s key that nurses in Public Health stay up-to-date on epidemics and collaborate with officials at the local, state, and federal level.
Where Do Public Health Nurses Work?
While Public Health Nurses can work in hospitals and are qualified to perform the same duties as Registered Nurses, they more often work outside of traditional healthcare facilities. Some common work settings include:
- City health departments
- Community health clinics
- Government agencies
- Nongovernmental agencies
- Nonprofit organizations
- Research institutions
Wherever a Public Health Nurse works, their main objective is typically the same: contribute to improving health at the community level.
Public Health Nurse Salary
According to Salary.com, the average annual salary for a Public Health Nurse in the United States is $65,660 per year. Salaries typically range from $56,560 to $75,740 per year.
Interestingly, this salary is actually less than the average RN salary, $77,600 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, it’s worth noting that these salaries are generally for more clinically-oriented Public Health Nurses, like those that provide care and educate patients in community health clinics.
Before you can take on the more advanced leadership, administrative, or research roles, like Director of a City Health Department or Infection Preventionist, you’ll likely need to gain some experience in a more general Public Health role and/or earn an advanced degree.
Clearly, there’s a lot of salary potential in the field of Public Health, but you may need to work yourself up to that level with work experience and by expanding your education.
Public Health Nurse Salary by State
Public Health Nursing Examples
Public Health Nursing can encompass a wide range of roles and responsibilities, so here are some examples of different types of Public Health Nurses.
Community Clinic Public Health Nurse
Public Health Nurses in a community clinic setting provide direct care and screenings to patients who don’t otherwise have access to healthcare services. They perform many of the same duties as traditional clinical RNs, such as:
- Treating illness
- Administering vaccines
- Helping patients manage chronic conditions
- Providing preventative care
One of the most important aspects of this type of nurse is educating patients. This often consists of talking with patients, providing them with pamphlets, and developing other education initiatives. Community Clinic populations often include patients dealing with things like:
- Substance abuse
If you want to work with and help underserved patient populations in the most direct way possible, becoming a Community Clinic Public Health Nurse could be a great choice.
Infection Preventionists, also referred to as Infection Control Nurses or Nurse Epidemiologists, focus on preventing and stopping the spread of infections. They can work for hospitals, assisted living facilities, or government agencies.
An Infection Preventionist at a hospital or healthcare facility has two main objectives.
The first priority is ensuring the facility is up-to-date regarding best hygiene practices, as well as making sure the policies are being followed. For example, the job requires that the IP monitor CDC guidelines. Additionally, they need to study disease patterns in the facility and develop initiatives to improve safety.
Their second priority is emergency preparedness, which has become increasingly important in the wake of the pandemic. IPs need to stay abreast of the latest infection developments and develop policies to keep everyone safe.
Government Agency Public Health Nurse
There are a lot of government agencies where you can find Public Health Nurses. For example, you can find them working in correctional facilities providing direct patient care.
However, Public Health Nurses also often take on more research- and administrative-oriented roles in settings like government health departments. In these types of roles, nurses contribute to affecting policy change and adherence at the systemwide level.
Some specific examples of job responsibilities can include:
- Managing grants and budgets
- Performing epidemiological research
- Organizing vaccination clinics
- Developing emergency preparedness initiatives
While a School Nurse might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term Public Health Nurse, there’s no denying that these nurses play a critical role in maintaining public health.
School nurses are tasked with caring for and monitoring student populations to prevent the spread of disease and keep students and their families healthy. Some of their specific duties may include:
- Educating students and their families about best hygiene practices, nutrition, etc.
- Ensuring the school follows public health guidelines
- Contributing to the care of students with chronic illnesses
School Nurses are arguably some of the most important Public Health Nurses, as the education they provide students can help lay the foundation for healthy behaviors throughout students’ lives.
How To Become A Public Health Nurse
To become a Public Health Nurse, you’ll need to follow the steps below.
1. Earn Your BSN
The first step to becoming a Public Health Nurse is to earn your Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing degree. This will give you the educational foundation you need to succeed in a Master’s program.
Additionally, a BSN will provide you with the educational credentials you need to sit for the NCLEX and become a licensed Registered Nurse.
If you’re already an RN with an Associate Degree in Nursing, you can always enroll in an RN to BSN program. There are plenty of online BSN programs to choose from which allow you to earn your degree on a flexible schedule.
Additionally, even LPNs can opt to enroll in an LPN to RN bridge program, though we recommend you find a program that allows you to bridge to a BSN instead of an ADN.
2. Pass the NCLEX
If you’re not already a Registered Nurse, you’ll need to pass the NCLEX once you complete your undergraduate degree.
Once you pass the exam, you can apply for state licensure and officially begin working as an RN.
Additionally, if you live in a Compact Nursing State, you can upgrade your state license to a compact license, which allows you to practice in other compact states without applying for state-specific licensure.
This is especially convenient if you’re interested in becoming a travel nurse.
3. Gain RN Experience
While you can jump straight into a Master’s of Science in Nursing degree program at the completion of your Bachelor’s degree, it’s often a good idea to get some experience working as an RN first.
However, this choice is entirely up to you and the requirements of whatever MSN program you’d like to enroll in. For example, if you intend to be a more research-focused, and less clinically-focused, nurse, then it may make sense to go directly into a full-time MSN program.
If you do opt to get some experience before entering a graduate-level program, or you’d like to work as an RN while you get your degree, you’ll probably want to look for positions at outpatient clinics, community clinics, or school systems.
This will show your dedication to areas related to public health when you look for more advanced roles later on.
4. Earn Your MSN in Public Health
Technically an undergraduate degree qualifies you to take on a host of Public Health Nursing positions. However, given that some roles often include duties that require advanced, systems-wide thinking, you’ll be much better prepared if you earn your MSN.
Additionally, high-level Public Health positions are competitive, and having an advanced degree will make you a more attractive candidate when applying to jobs.
Finally, if you’re really research focused, you may consider going for your PhD in Nursing.
Alternatively, a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) will provide you with the most extensive knowledge and skill set when it comes to nursing practice, which could be key for those looking to enter positions at prominent government agencies and healthcare policy institutions.
Public Health Nurse Certification
You do not need any certification to work as a Public Health Nurse.
Previously, there were optional certifications offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center, including:
- Advanced Public Health Nursing Certification (PHNA-BC)
- National Healthcare Disaster Certification (NHDP-BC)
However, the ANCC now only offers renewal of these certifications, meaning you can’t obtain them if you aren’t already certified.
There is one certification offered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners. It’s worth noting that this certification is not mandatory, though it could give your resume a nice boost.
Is Public Health Nursing Hard?
Public Health Nursing can be challenging because these nurses face unique responsibilities that other RNs don’t have to think about. However, what you find easy or hard depends on your own skill set, personality, and goals.
Since there are so many different types of Public Health Nurses, exactly which duties they carry out can be varied.
You may find this type of nursing easier if you have a passion for educating others, enjoy analyzing and monitoring data and trends, and prefer to think in terms of systems rather than individuals.
Should You Become A Public Health Nurse?
Becoming a Public Health Nurse can be a great career choice and open the doors to a lot of new opportunities. While some of these nurses work in community health clinics, others may work in government health departments, or even schools!
Public Health Nurses play a huge role, especially in underserved communities, in increasing access to care and providing education on how to stay healthy. If you want to make a difference and work toward more equitable healthcare, this could be the field for you.
To equip yourself with the education and skills you need to succeed as a Public Health Nurse, you’ll at least need your BSN, though an MSN program may be best for some of the more advanced roles (you can even get your MSN with a concentration in Public Health!).
To find a degree program suited to your needs and interests, click here!
Nurse Luke is a CRNA who specializes in Nursing content and still enjoys a very busy career with Locum, Per Diem and Travel nursing in the greater midwest. He has over 25 years of experience in the healthcare field and received his CRNA masters degree from the Mayo Clinic School of Healthcare. He is passionate about helping nurses explore the options of becoming a travel nurse as well as spending time with his Family.