What Is Public Health Nursing, and What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Public health nursing job opportunities are expected to grow. Learn more about a career as a PHN and what you’ll need to begin your career.

[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. A public health nurse doesn’t regularly treat patients but advocates on their behalf and teaches self-care and prevention.

What does a public health nurse do?

As a public health nurse, you’ll work in underserved communities to identify a specific population's health care needs to build healthier communities. You’ll work with at-risk populations, such as the homeless, to improve their health and well-being. 

Roles and responsibilities

Working as a public health nurse requires community involvement and advocacy. A PHN provides access to health care, nutrition, and education and works with communities to address social issues.

You’ll need to know the resources available in your community to direct a patient to get the care they need if it’s something you can’t provide. 

In times of pandemics, the public health nurse is a frontline worker. You will provide education and outreach to the homeless and marginalized communities. You may be involved in contact tracing and making home visits.

As a public health nurse, you may be required to keep records of community health trends and analyze any disease outbreaks or increases in deaths due to a specific cause. In your position as a PHN, you’ll work as a liaison between at-risk populations, community leaders, and policymakers to find ways to improve the health and welfare of those living in underserved neighborhoods.

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 doesn’t treat individual patients but a specific population. They bring services into a community. For example, as a public health nurse, you might schedule and hold childhood immunization clinics or health screening clinics.   

A direct care nurse works in a health care setting such as a hospital, treating individual patients. In contrast, a public health nurse visits large groups within a community to implement long-term health and wellness goals.            

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.

To become a public health nurse, you’ll need to complete a bachelor of science degree in nursing 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. 

Education pathways

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) from an accredited school is 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. The master’s program requires 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 experience in the field or a graduate degree and three years 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.

Skills required for public health nurse work 

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 want good problem-solving skills to overcome these challenges.

  • 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. 

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

You should expect an ASN from an accredited school to take two years to complete.

A BSN program generally takes four years to complete and includes classroom and clinical work.

If you continue for a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), 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.

Salary and career outlook for public health nurses

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for a public health nurse/ registered nurse is projected to grow nine percent through 2030 [1]. It reports an average annual salary of $77,600 as of May 2021. The BLS lists the top 10 percent earn more than $120,250 [2].

Next steps

The decision to pursue a career in public health nursing is an exciting step. If you’re pursuing your associate or bachelor's degree, be sure to seek out accredited programs.  If you’re already an RN and employed but want to advance your education, many master’s programs are available online and offer the flexibility needed to complete a graduate degree. 

If you’re still trying to decide if a nursing or health care career is for you, consider learning more through an online course. Northwestern University, for instance, offers a free course on Coursera called Career 911: Your Future Job in Medicine and Healthcare to help you explore career options in health care. 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.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Registered Nurses: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-6." Accessed June 24, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Registered Nurses: Occupational Outlook Handbook, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-5." Accessed June 24, 2022.

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