What Does a Public Health Nurse Do? A Career Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Public health nursing job opportunities are expected to grow. Learn more about this career and what you need to know to get started.

[Featured Image]:  A female, with black hair, wearing a blue uniform, with a white long sleeve shirt and a blue face covering. She is looking at a chart, as she performs her duties as a public health nurse.

The role of public health nursing is to promote community wellness to help prevent disease and reduce health risks in marginalized communities. A public health nurse (PHN) goes into at-risk communities to provide health education and resources for access to health care.

Rather than clinical work such as treating patients, public health nurses advocate on communities' behalf and teach self-care and disease prevention.

Learn all about what a public health nurse is and does in this career guide.

What does a public health nurse do?

Public health nurses work in underserved communities to identify a specific population's health care needs and help build healthier communities. They routinely work with at-risk populations, such as the homeless, to improve their health and well-being. 

Read more: What Is Public Health? Your Career Guide

What's the difference between public health nursing and direct care nursing?

Both public health nurses and direct care nurses are essential in providing health care in the communities they serve. The difference is that a public health nurse typically treats a specific population, while direct care nurses work in health care settings to treat individual patients. Public health nurses bring services into a community, such as scheduling childhood immunization clinics or health screening clinics. 


Roles and responsibilities

Working as a public health nurse requires community involvement and advocacy. Public health nurses provide access to health care, nutrition, and education, and work with communities to address social issues.

As a public health nurse, you may be required to do the following:

  • Keep records of community health trends

  • Analyze records for disease outbreaks or increases in deaths due to a specific cause

  • Work as a liaison between at-risk populations, community leaders, and policymakers to find ways to improve the health and welfare of underserved communities

  • Assign priorities for health interventions to deliver the most significant impact

  • Design and execute health education campaigns and activities for disease prevention and overall well-being

Salary and career outlook for public health nurses

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports an average annual salary of $77,600 for registered nurses [1]. That number is slightly higher at $93,536 from Glassdoor [2]. The job outlook for registered nurses is projected to grow six percent, though it is higher for community health workers whose responsibilities are more closely aligned with those of public health nurses.

Skills required to become a public health nurse

Working with diverse populations requires good communication skills. Not only will you be interacting with families and large groups of people, but you will also communicate with policymakers to address the needs of the underserved.

Along with verbal communication skills, it is essential to have solid writing skills to prepare health plans and services. 

In your role as a public health nurse, you’ll also need the following skills:

  • Leadership: As a community partner, building strong, trusting relationships with those you work with is essential.

  • Problem-solving: Working within a budget to provide the needed services can sometimes be challenging. You’ll need problem-solving skills.

  • Collaboration: As a public health nurse, you’ll collaborate with other professionals to implement community programs. You’ll need to establish working relationships with management, social workers, and others involved in community work.

  • Analytical skills: To understand the community's needs, you’ll need good analytical skills to assess situations as they arise. 

Where does a public health nurse work?

Government and other public agencies hire public health nurses, and job opportunities are available with agencies and organizations that serve the health needs of a community. You might work for a school system to educate students and their parents about hygiene and nutrition or work for a community clinic caring for individuals and promoting disease prevention.

In your role as a public health nurse, you might work within your community or travel to other communities. Some public health nurses work alone, and some work with a team of health care professionals.

You can also seek positions with nonprofit organizations like the Red Cross or smaller grassroots groups concerned about health, social justice, and education.

Education requirements

To become a public health nurse, you’ll need to complete a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) from an accredited program. You'll take a state board exam after completing your degree program. Typically, there will be a fee, and you may be required to complete specific coursework. For example, New York State requires completing a child abuse reporting coursework to qualify for licensing. 

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) from an accredited school is usually the minimum requirement for an entry-level job in public health nursing, although many employers prefer a bachelor’s degree. 

A master of public health degree is an option if you want to move into a management position. Master’s programs tend to require candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree.

Read more: What Is a Master of Public Health (MPH) Degree?

Certifications and licensure

The next step to becoming a public health nurse is to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. State licensing requires the exam, and minimum education requirements may vary by state.

Optional certification is available from the National Board of Public Health Examiners: Certification in Public Health (CPH). To sit for the CPH exam, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience in the field or a graduate degree and three years of experience. 

Public health nurses can also earn an Advanced Public Health Nurse (APHN) certification. The advanced program builds on master’s programs by providing additional education in intervention and prevention and improving the quality of services provided to marginalized communities.

How long does it take to become a public health nurse?

You should expect an associate degree from an accredited school to take two years to complete. A bachelor's in nursing (BSN) generally takes four years to complete and includes classroom and clinical work.

If you continue with your master's, you can expect to earn your degree in approximately two years. If the school you choose accepts work experience or credits from your BSN program, you may be able to complete the master's program in less than two years.

Next steps

If you’re pursuing your associate or bachelor's degree in nursing, be sure to seek out accredited programs.

Consider learning more about disease control, one of the primary duties of a public health nurse, through the University of Geneva's Disease Screening in Public Health course or Imperial College's Epidemiology for Public Health Specialization on Coursera.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Registered Nurses: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-6." Accessed September 5, 2023.

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