How to Become a Public Health Nurse

Public health nursing promotes and protects community health using knowledge from nursing, social and public health sciences, according to the American Public Health Association

Public health nurses perform a vital role, especially among the most vulnerable in society, due to their frequent contact with them. These special nurses are community advocates, educators and providers of critical public health services. They focus more on long-term healthcare and safety.

Read on to find out what public health nurses do, common steps for how to become one, how much they earn and more.

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

Public health nurses play key roles in preventing disease while promoting public safety and well-being. They promote better health and safety in communities and help prepare them for and recover from public health incidents, such as natural disasters and disease outbreaks. 

Most public health nurses serve specific roles while helping their communities: 

  • Advocacy – Public health nurses work with local, state and federal authorities to champion improved access to health services for those in underserved communities.
  • Assessment – Nurses collect data and try to find patterns in disease outbreaks. They can plan, implement and evaluate community health.
  • Collaboration – Public health nurses work closely with healthcare professionals, the community, public officials and patients to serve the community.
  • Communication – Nurses maintain close contact with community stakeholders, families and individuals to determine what’s needed in a community and what health services are available.
  • Diversity – Public health nurses should be connected to the diversity of their community to enable effective practice with individuals, families and groups.
  • Education – Nurses teach people about preventing diseases and leading a healthy life, empowering them to be responsible for their own health.
  • Intervention – Public health nurses intervene in difficult situations when they suspect cases of sexual, physical or psychological violence or abuse.
  • Leadership – Nurses help lead the community during major challenges, such as disease outbreaks or widespread addictions.
  • Management – Public health nurses support their communities with careful budget management and use of public resources.
  • Treatment – Nurses perform health screenings and administer medications, immunizations, examinations and more as needed to at-risk populations.

Steps to Become a Public Health Nurse 

There are several steps to become a public health nurse. Students usually start by pursuing a nursing degree, and move on into a public health nursing specialty. 

Here are common steps to become a public health nurse.

Step 1. Attend an accredited nursing program

Students should seek out a program accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Attending an accredited nursing program allows students to:

  • Attend a graduate nursing program
  • Compete in the job market 
  • Receive federal financial aid
  • Transfer credits to the program

 Degrees to pursue a career as a public health nurse include an Associate Degree of Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). 

Step 2. Study and pass the NCLEX-RN exam

The National Council Licensure Exam-Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN), developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, is a standardized exam that tests you on the practical application and analysis of everything you’ve learned at nursing school. It helps determine whether you have the knowledge and skills to work in the field of nursing.

Step 3. Gain experience in nursing

After getting a license, it is recommended that nurses gain at least two years of experience before beginning the process of becoming a public health nurse. 

Step 4. Obtain certification as a certified public health nurse

There is one general public health nurse certification for nurses just obtaining licensure. The Certified in Public Health designation is available through the National Board of Public Health Examiners.

To be eligible for a CPH, these criteria must be met:

  • Student of a school or program of public health accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)
  • Alumni of a school or program of public health accredited by CEPH
  • Public health work experience, including: 
    • A bachelor’s degree, in any concentration, and at least five years’ public health work experience OR
    • A relevant graduate degree, and at least three years’ public health work experience OR
    • A certificate from a program or school of public health accredited by or in applicant status with CEPH, and at least three years’ public health work experience.

Find out about CEPH-accredited master’s in public health online programs and other certifications in public health education and physical activity.

Step 5. Get continuing education and training

Continuing education and training are recommended for all public health nurses. This ensures that nurses are well-versed in new studies, innovation and ideas within healthcare and public health. This is also a good way for nurses to open up new career opportunities.

All nurses with a CPH certification must report at least 50 recertification credits every two years. Extensions are available in three-month increments.

Another way to gain more knowledge is with a Master of Public Health-Master of Science in Nursing dual degree. Find out more about obtaining an MPH-MSN degree.

Where Do Public Health Nurses Work? 

Because public health nurses focus more on entire communities than individuals, they work in a variety of public settings. Here are five places public health nurses might work and their responsibilities:

Community Clinics

Public health nurses work closely with the community in clinics, dealing with a variety of health concerns. Because of these experiences, they will be on the front line in developing educational programs to teach the community how to improve overall health. This advice can be individual-based or community-based. 

Government Organizations

County, state or national health departments rely on public health nurses. They will focus on policy development to improve the overall health of entire populations. These positions often focus on administration and paperwork and less on individual patients.

Outpatient Clinics

People often go to outpatient clinics with health concerns. While public health nurses can address their immediate concerns, send out for tests and perhaps even prescribe medication, they can also take a leadership role in public health education. 

Schools

Public health nurses will help children and their parents address issues in schools. They will help educate children how to maintain their own health and prevent illness, plus address personal hygiene, sexual health and other issues. These nurses will also monitor at-risk children, watching for signs of abuse or neglect.

Voluntary Organizations

Numerous organizations help deliver health solutions to those in need with the aid of public health nurses. These groups include Doctors Without Borders, the Peace Corps and the Red Cross. Among the duties of public health nurses are disaster relief, drinking water safety, education, family planning, hygiene, sexual health and more.

Career Outlook and Salary Expectations 

Public health nurse salaries can vary by location and experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t keep numbers on the public health nurse specialty, but registered nurses earned an average of $73,300 a year as of May 2019. These were the average salaries in the top fields:

Career Outlook and Salary Expectations
Field Median Annual Wage
Government $79,790
Hospitals; state, local and private $75,030
Ambulatory healthcare services $70,330
Nursing and residential care facilities $66,250
Educational services; state, local and private $63,690

Public health nurse job availability varies by location. For all registered nurses, employment is expected to grow by 7% from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. The top five states for registered nurse jobs are:

Top Five States for Registered Nurse Jobs
State Number of Jobs
California 302,770
Texas 218,090
Florida 181,670
New York 178,320
Pennsylvania 148,040

Public Health Specialist vs. Public Health Nurse

Learn about the differences between a public health specialist and a public health nurse.

Public health nurses can perform many of the job functions of public health specialists. Perhaps the biggest difference is that nurses have the educational background and clinical experience to be able to provide care to patients. Public health nurses may focus on treating a group of people, whereas other types of nurses treat individuals.

Some entry-level public health nursing roles may only require a BSN, but those who want to become a public health nurse must be registered nurses. Given the leadership that is often required in this position, having an MSN is recommended.

Public health specialists are focused on improving health outcomes through research, education and prevention. This can include areas such as environmental health, disease etiology, occupational health, nutrition and more.

A public health specialist may have these job responsibilities, depending on their role:

  • Organize and implement research studies to improve public health outcomes.
  • Study and report on disease patterns and infection data.
  • Analyze data using applied statistical and qualitative methods.
  • Provide feedback to organizations seeking to improve employee health and safety.
  • Communicate research findings to clinicians and stakeholders.
  • Design, implement and manage public health programs.

While a public health specialist may design and develop interventions, a public health nurse may help to carry out the interventions, especially if they involve administering care.

FAQs on Public Health Nurses

Those considering a career in public health nursing have some common questions. Here are five frequently asked questions and the answers.

What is public health nursing?

Public health nursing is commonly defined as a method to promote and protect community health using knowledge from nursing, social and public health sciences. Public health nursing focuses on the overall health of a community, promoting health and preventing disease and disability.

What is the job description of public health nurses?

Public health nurses are considered community advocates, educators and providers of critical public health services. They perform a vital role, focusing more on long-term healthcare and safety, especially among the most vulnerable in society. Public health nurses also are key in helping a community prepare for and recover from health incidents, such as natural disasters and disease outbreaks.

What is the education requirement to become a public health nurse?

Public health nurses typically have either an Associate Degree of Nursing or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. These degrees should be obtained from a program accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

Is public health nurse a good career choice?

Nursing in general is a growth field because of the constant need for healthcare among the populace. The number of registered nursing jobs is expected to grow by 7% from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all jobs, according to government statistics. Registered nurses earn an average of $73,300 a year.

What are the differences between public health nurses and public health specialists?

Although both have public health in mind, the qualifications for nurses and specialists is different. Nurses must have medical knowledge and clinical experience to be certified, which is not required of most public health jobs, such as environmental health specialists and epidemiologists. Public health professionals focus on community health, but public health nurses still must care for patients, administer medicine and work with physicians.

Information last updated September 2020

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