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

Written by Coursera Staff • 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 public health nurse is in a hospital looking at a chart.

Public health nurses (PHN) promote community wellness to help prevent disease and reduce health risks in marginalized communities. A public health nurse 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.

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?

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. 

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 PHN requires community involvement and advocacy. A PHN provides access to health care, nutrition, and education and works 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       

Where does a public health nurse work?

Official or 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 for a community clinic caring for individuals and promoting disease prevention.

In your PHN role, 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 Canadian Red Cross or smaller grassroots groups concerned about health, social justice, and education.

Salary and career outlook for public health nurses

According to Glassdoor, public health nurses earn an average annual salary of $84,400 [1]. Job Bank Canada predicts a “Good” to “Very Good” job outlook for public health nurses across all territories and provinces through 2025 [2]. 

Education requirements

To become a public health nurse, you must complete a bachelor’s degree program in nursing and pass the national licensing exam NCLEX to become a registered nurse and obtain a licence. After you have earned a bachelor’s in nursing, you're eligible for advanced degrees. A Master of Public Health degree is an option if you want to move into a management position or take on more responsibilities as a public health nurse. The master’s degree program requires candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree. 

Skills required for public health nurse work 

Working with diverse populations requires good communication skills. Not only will you interact 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. 

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 programmes. 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. 

Certifications and licensure

All registered nurses who want to work as public health nurses must register with the regulatory body for nursing based on where they want to practice. Requirements vary by province. 

Optional certification is available from the Canadian Nurses Association. The Certification in Community Health Nursing (CCHN) is available for RNs and PHNs who want to work as community health nurses. To sit for the Certified Public Health 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. 

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

A bachelor’s degree programme 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 bachelor’s program, you may be able to complete the master's program in less than two years.

Next steps

If you’re interested in a nursing or health care career, consider learning more through an online course. Northwestern University 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.

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