What Is a Public Health Nurse?

headshot of smiling female nurse holding documents in hospital

Like all nurses, public health nurses advocate for patients. However, the public health subfield involves the health of an entire population, not just one patient at a time. Public health nurses are typically engaged in public policy and planning. They develop and support systems and programs in the community to prevent problems and provide access to care. These professionals may also provide direct patient care. This 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.1

Overview of Public Health Nurse Career

Public health nurses strive to improve patient's wellness. Unlike other nurses, however, they specialize in promoting the health of communities – which may be towns, counties, states or entire countries. Although some of these professionals do work with patients one-on-one, their primary focus is on the community as a whole.

The public health field is also distinctive in its emphasis on prevention. This is especially true where underserved and at-risk populations are concerned. While some public health nurses treat patients who are sick or injured, the discipline focuses primarily on reducing risk factors for disease and injury. Examples include programs to encourage children to wear bicycle helmets or to help smokers access smoking cessation support services.

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

Although the above overview offers a general idea of this profession’s primary focus, you may still be wondering exactly what a public health nurse does. Specific job responsibilities vary widely 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 their implementation and monitor their 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.

In addition, a public health nurse may deliver the same direct patient care services as any other registered nurse. These include evaluating patients, ordering diagnostic tests or scans, developing treatment plans and prescribing medications. Nurses need to develop strong working relationships with patients (and sometimes their family or caregivers) in order to empower them to care for themselves more effectively.

Public health nurses typically take a holistic approach to community wellness. This is because health can be significantly influenced by factors 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 other parts of town.

Public health nurses are responsible for breaking down such barriers to health equity. Accordingly, these professionals work toward community reform and social justice to reduce healthcare disparities. A nurse at a county health department might lobby for public policy changes that allow more bus routes through economically disadvantaged areas, which would give 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 for the betterment of the health of the region they serve. Their role is largely administrative. They also work to implement health initiatives and track their progress and impact over time.

Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit public health 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 a variety of 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.

Community Clinics

Nurses who work at community clinics provide a substantial amount of direct patient care. They work with patients one-on-one, ordering diagnostic tests and recommending treatments. This role also involves a strong focus on patient education. For example, a community clinic nurse may orchestrate public health seminars or speak at a community fair.

Outpatient Clinics

Public health nurses who work at outpatient clinics provide many of the same services as those who work at community clinics. However, they tend to deliver most of their patient education one-on-one rather than to large groups of people. Still, an outpatient clinic nurse may occasionally organize classes and workshops for the community.

School Systems

Nurses who work in school systems play a critical role in the health of the community. By educating young people about important health issues and helping them develop healthy habits, nurses can exert significant influence on the next generation. In addition to helping children learn about personal hygiene and other important topics, nurses in schools must be constantly on the lookout for signs of potential abuse or neglect.

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. As experts in community disease outbreaks, public health nurses are qualified to combat threats like COVID-19. Diseases such as coronaviruses spread quickly, infecting and potentially causing significant harm to much of the population. It is the job of the public health nurse to mitigate that damage as much as possible and slow the spread of the disease.

To that end, public health nurses have been working on the front lines, providing direct patient care and support services. They have also worked as contact tracers, investigating the spread of the disease from person to person. In this role, they have helped infected and potentially exposed individuals understand the importance of quarantine and self-isolation measures to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

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 intended to prevent the spread of disease throughout homeless populations.

Public Health Nurse Degree Options for Undergraduates

An aspiring public health nurse must first become a registered nurse (RN). This process begins with an undergraduate degree. 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 employers. It provides students with a deeper understanding of important 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. This is an accelerated program that 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 key 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. In the course of your studies, take every opportunity to improve your communication skills. It is crucial for a public health nurse to 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 will improve your career qualifications, open the doors to high-level employment opportunities and enhance your ability to effect positive change within the public health field.

Degree options in this field include a Master of Public Health (MPH) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). 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. However, a nursing professional should choose an MSN degree instead.

Look for an MSN degree that offers a specialization in public health nursing. This 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 makes it ideal for public health nurses who are 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 sustainable change in healthcare and emerging risk factors in human health.

Career Requirements Beyond Academic Degrees

Although academic credentials are essential for public health nurses, they are not the only career requirement. After you earn your BSN and before you consider a graduate degree program, 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.

The NCLEX-RN was developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing as a way to ensure that all practicing RNs meet a minimum standard of competency. The exam is administered by Pearson Vue. Before you can take the test, you will need an Authorization to Test (ATT), which you can get by applying to your state’s nursing regulatory body (NRB). The NRB will ensure that you meet the minimum eligibility qualifications in your state.

This exam is quite rigorous, so it is important to set aside plenty of time to prepare. However, you will not want to wait too long to take the test after you graduate with your BSN. It is best to take the exam while all your coursework is fresh in your mind. For best results, you can begin preparing for it during your final year of school.

While licensure is required, other credentials for public health nurses are voluntary. For instance, after gaining a certain amount of experience in the field, public health nurses may opt to pursue certification. This can allow them to pursue higher-level job opportunities.

The National Board of Public Health Examiners offers certification options for public health nurses. To take the examination for certification, you must meet certain eligibility criteria.2 For example, you may qualify by completing the master’s or doctoral degree requirements for a public health program accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health. Another option is to hold a bachelor’s degree and accrue at least five years of experience in the public health field. You can view the complete list of eligibility criteria on the Board’s website.

Is There a Demand for Public Health Nurses?

There is a strong demand for qualified registered nurses in all fields. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a growth rate of 7% in the nursing workforce through 2029. This rate of growth is faster than the average. It represents the addition of about 221,900 nursing jobs to the U.S. economy.2 

Do you feel called to serve others in your community through a career in public health? If so, consider earning your public health nursing degree at Grand Canyon University. Undergraduate students can begin by earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN), followed by a Master of Science in Nursing with an Emphasis in Public Health Nursing. 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.

COVID-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 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses.

Retrieved from:

1U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurse, in September 2020

2Certified Public Health, Eligibility Requirements, in March 2021

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.

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