What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

Public health nurse writing down notes in file

Like all nurses, public health nurses advocate for patients. However, the difference is the public health profession involves the health of an entire population, not just one patient at a time. So, what exactly does a public health nurse do? In short, public health nurses engage in public policy and planning. They develop support systems and programs in the community to prevent problems and provide access to care. These professionals may also provide direct patient care.

Public Health Nurse Overview and Salary

Public health nurses promote communities’ health, including towns, counties, states or entire countries. Their primary focus is on the community as a whole.

The public health field is distinctive in its emphasis on prevention and reducing risk factors for disease and injury, especially where underserved and at-risk populations are concerned. Some examples of this include encouraging children to wear bicycle helmets or helping smokers access smoking cessation support services.

When looking at salary estimates for public health nurses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses have a median annual wage of $75,330 as of May 2020.1

What Does Public Health Nursing Look Like as a Career?

Although the above overview offers a general idea of this profession, you may still wonder what a public health nurse does. Specific job responsibilities vary depending on the workplace and the population served. However, here are some of the possibilities:

  • Gather, record and analyze medical information, looking for health trends in the community, such as a spike in heart attack deaths or an outbreak of foodborne illnesses
  • Influence public policy to create more comprehensive access to healthcare services and, in doing so, generate better health outcomes for underserved and at-risk patients
  • Develop public health initiatives, oversee the implementation and monitor progress and effects
  • Deliver health education one-on-one or to groups of people, focusing on healthy lifestyle changes that reduce the risk of injury and disease

Public health nurses typically take a holistic approach to community wellness. This perspective is because factors can significantly influence health as wide-ranging as geography, education level, economic stability and social issues. For example, a part of town lacking easy access to fresh, nutritious foods will likely experience poorer health outcomes than others.

Additionally, they are responsible for breaking down such barriers to health equity and will often work toward community reform and social justice to reduce healthcare disparities. These efforts may include lobbying for public policy changes that allow more bus routes, giving residents greater access to medical resources.

Where Do Public Health Nurses Work?

Public health nurses work in a variety of settings. Some work for nonprofits or governmental institutions, while others work for privately held healthcare companies. Some common areas that have public health nurses on staff include:

County and State Health Departments

Public health nurses who work in county or state health departments are primarily community advocates. They use their expertise to influence and develop public policies to improve the health of the region they serve. Their role is mainly administrative. They also work to implement health initiatives and track their progress and impact over time.

Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit organizations that hire public health nurses include the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the Peace Corps. Organizations like these are dedicated to improving healthcare for disenfranchised communities. Public health nurses who work for them may take on various tasks, ranging from educating communities on disease outbreak prevention to spearheading an initiative to deliver clean drinking water. Some of these professionals may also work on disaster relief programs.

School Systems

Nurses working in school systems play a critical role in the community’s health. Nurses can exert significant influence on the next generation by educating young people about important health issues and helping them develop healthy habits. In addition to facilitating education about personal hygiene and other essential topics, school nurses must constantly evaluate healthcare concerns and administer prescribed medications.

The Role of Public Health Nurses During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The role of public health nurses takes on extra importance in times of crisis, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some steps that public health nurses take during times of crisis to help keep the public safe:

  • Mitigate damage and slow the spread of the disease
  • Provide direct patient care and support services
  • Work as a contract tracer, investigating the spread among persons
  • Provide education to infected and exposed individuals about quarantining and self-isolation

In addition, public health nurses can effect change at the local, state and federal levels. They may review and recommend emergency operation plans or advise elected officials on public health measures. In keeping with the mission of the public health field, many of these professionals focus on underserved and at-risk populations. For example, they may design and implement measures to prevent disease spread throughout homeless populations.

Public Health Degree Options for Nurses

An aspiring public health nurse must become a registered nurse (RN). This process begins with an undergraduate degree in nursing. It is possible to become an RN. with just a two-year associate degree in a nursing program; however, the ideal pathway is to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a credential respected by many employers. It gives students a deeper understanding of essential nursing skills and critical thinking. As a result, it better prepares graduates to promote favorable patient outcomes.

If you already hold a two-year associate degree and work as an RN, you may consider enrolling in an RN to BSN program to pursue your BSN degree. This accelerated program allows working nurses to apply their existing education and experience toward their BSN. Furthermore, classes in such a program may be offered online, with a setting near you for the required in-person clinical hours.

Regardless of which option best fits your needs, you can expect a thorough immersion in crucial nursing and public health concepts. For example, you may explore the fundamentals of patient assessment, nursing research, pathophysiology, nursing leadership and ethical decision-making in healthcare. During your studies, take every opportunity to improve your communication skills. A public health nurse must be confident and clear when speaking with both individual patients and groups of people.

Public Health Degree Options for Graduate Students

After you have earned your bachelor’s degree and acquired a few years of working experience, you may decide that it is time to return to school. One or more graduate degrees may improve your career qualifications, open doors to employment opportunities and enhance your ability to effect positive change within the public health field.

Degree options in this field include the Master of Public Health (MPH) or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with an Emphasis in Public Health Nursing degree. An MPH degree is an excellent option for a non-nursing professional who wants to work in public health as a policy analyst, program manager or health educator. Meanwhile, a nursing professional may benefit more from an MSN degree. 

Look for an MSN degree that offers a specialization in public health nursing. This specialty will allow you to explore advanced topics such as epidemiology, population health management, organizational leadership and the analysis and application of public health data

Later in your career, you may decide to return to school to earn your Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. In contrast to a PhD in nursing, the DNP is uniquely practice-oriented. This degree is ideal for public health nurses focused on improving patient health outcomes. In a DNP program, you can expect to hone your nursing research skills and develop in-depth knowledge of enacting sustainable change in healthcare and emerging risk factors in human health. 

Career Requirements Beyond Academic Degrees

Academic credentials are not the only career requirement needed to become a public health nurse. After you earn your BSN and before you consider graduate degree programs, you will need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Once you pass the test, you will be licensed as an RN and can begin working with patients.

While licensure is required, other credentials for public health nurses are voluntary, such as obtaining additional certifications, allowing them to pursue higher-level job opportunities. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers certification options for public health nurses. To take the examination for certification, you must meet specific eligibility criteria. You can view the complete list of eligibility criteria on the ANCC website.2

Is There a Demand for Public Health Nurses?

Now is an exciting time to pursue a career as a public health nurse since the demand for qualified healthcare professionals is expected to be robust for the foreseeable future.3 With this comes a strong need for qualified registered nurses in all fields. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a growth rate of 9% in the nursing workforce from 2020 to 2030. This increase represents the addition of about 276,800 new nursing jobs to the U.S. economy.3

Do you feel called to serve others in your community through a career in public health? If so, consider earning your public health nurse degree at Grand Canyon University. Emerge fully prepared to tackle 21st-century challenges in the public health field and improve the strength of your community. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen for more information about our Christian learning community.


1The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), Registered Nurses as of May 2020. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as Registered Nurses. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path. 

2Retrieved from ANCC, Advanced Public Health Nursing Certification (PHNA-BC), in November 2022

3COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses.


Approved by the Associate Dean of the College of Nursing and Healthcare Professions on Dec. 12, 2022

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.