What Is a Public Health Nurse?

According to the American Public Health Association, public health nursing is defined as "…the practice of promoting and protecting the health of populations using knowledge from nursing, social, and public health sciences." Instead of being stationed in a hospital or clinic setting, public health nurses reach out to patients in the community. This allows them to assess their environment, available resources, and potential health care needs.

Becoming a Public Health Nurse

Since specific patient populations are the focus of public health nursing, those interested in this specialty should be able to see the “big picture” in terms of community health needs. The assessment does not just focus on one patient—it involves the patient, the family, and the home and work environment—any factor that may affect the health of members of the community. Nurses must have exceptional assessment skills, be able to work independently, have a desire to lead and act as role models, and have a lot of patience.

Additionally, many public health nurses work with underprivileged families, which can be emotionally draining. Public health nurses should be able to emotionally handle difficult cases and have a dedicated support system.

What Are the Education Requirements for a Public Health Nurse?

Those interested in the specialty of public health nursing should first pursue a nursing degree through a two or four-year university. Obtaining an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a requirement. However, BSN degrees are recommended for entry-level public health nursing.

Upon completion of an accredited nursing program, graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN in order to be eligible for licensure.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) nurses can advance their public health nursing practice to include leadership roles and research. For example, those involved in research can identify health and disease trends, patterns, and study outbreaks to find ways to improve the health of a community.

Consider the following options:

Are Any Certifications or Credentials Needed?

Certification in an area of public health nursing is sometimes required. Some BSN nursing programs incorporate public health nursing courses within the nursing program. Graduates can then apply for certification through the state nursing board. For nursing programs that do not have a public health focus, various educational institutions can fulfill the required curricula. Educational needs are dependent on the academic background of the applicant. The basic required coursework should include:

  • Community health nursing
  • Family-centered care
  • Multicultural nursing care
  • Nursing assessment

Nurses interested in public health certification should contact their state's Board of Nursing to verify the requirements.

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) at one time offered an Advanced Public Health Nurse-Board Certified (APHN-BC) credential. However, this certification is now available for renewal only. The ANCC has begun offering a National Healthcare Disaster Certification (NHDP-BC) that may be of interest to public health nurses.

Read more for further clarity on public health nurse certifications.

Where Do Public Health Nurses Work?

Public health nurses provide many services and therefore can work in a variety of settings. Institutions may include:

  • County health departments
  • City health departments
  • Federal health-related organizations
  • Private public-health agencies
  • Mobile units providing health care services

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

Public health nurses provide a wide variety of services depending on the place of employment. Specifically, public health nurses:

  • Provide screening tests for specific populations
  • Provide immunizations to adults and children
  • Provide nutrition education for various programs, including the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program
  • Collect data and look for trends/patterns in disease outbreaks
  • Educate and treat infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted diseases
  • Educate high-risk populations (drug users, prostitutes, etc.) on healthy behavior and disease prevention
  • Assist patients and families in psychosocial health to include effective communication, intimate partner violence, and abuse
  • Respond and implement interventions in cases of natural disasters or community-wide emergencies
  • Administer medications

What Are the Roles & Duties of a Public Health Nurse?

Public health nurses are a crucial part of the health care world. Many patients, especially those in underserved, rural, or underprivileged communities do not seek health care, or cannot afford to. Public health nurses reach out to educate and treat patients and families in need. Roles may include:

  • Assessing psychosocial, mental health, physical and nutritional needs of a population
  • Educating on the importance of preventive health, and preventive health screening
  • Recognizing and intervening in cases of abuse or violence
  • Motivating members of the community to adopt healthy behaviors and lifestyles
  • Acting as a role model to the community
  • Intervening and educating in cases of infectious disease outbreaks
  • Utilizing and educating patients on available community resources
  • Providing leadership within a community, especially in cases of emergencies

Public Health Nurse Salary & Employment

While there is no official data on the outlook for public health nurses specifically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that registered nursing, in general, is expected to grow 9% by 2030. Additionally, opportunities for health educators and community health workers, in general, are expected to grow 17% by 2030. This is promising to nurses interested in the field of public health nursing.

According to payscale.com, the average salary for a public health nurse is $56,111 annually. This figure can vary depending on degrees/certificates held, and city/state of employment.

Helpful Organizations, Societies, & Agencies