What is a Public Health Nurse?

August 10, 2021 | bestvalue

Most nurses operate in a one-to-one setting or care for a handful of patients on a ward. A public health nurse, on the other hand, takes care of people on a much broader scale, supporting health on a population level.

The field of public health is broad, and public health nursing can involve a number of things. Some public health nurses work out in the community delivering health information, educating community members on health issues and wellness, or offering healthy lifestyle advice. Other public health nurses work on a more macro level, setting policies and allocating resources.

Public health nurses focus on the idea that our health is influenced by a number of environmental and socioeconomic factors. If you can improve community health, you can improve the health of many individuals. A community health nurse may work out of a local community center or clinic, providing advice to local residents, or they may participate in outreach, visiting many venues across a city or state in their health promotion efforts.

Other public health nurses, especially senior ones who are trained to the nurse practitioner level, take a different approach to healthcare and work for government agencies, advising on issues that impact the health of the population and working to ensure that assets and resources are allocated in the best way to benefit as many people as possible.

A job in public health is a good choice for people who want to be involved with healthcare and make a difference to the lives of as many people as possible. Whether you train directly to enter public health as a field, or are a nurse who is looking to move off the wards as you get older, the job satisfaction rewards of this field make it an appealing choice for many.

What does a public health nursing job involve?

The job of a public health nurse varies depending on the setting they work in, but some common duties of a public health professional include include:

  • Monitoring health trends in a community
  • Identifying risk factors
  • Prioritizing health interventions that will have the greatest impact on the local population
  • Advocating with local governments, health authorities, and other organizations
  • Designing health education campaigns for at-risk demographics within the population
  • Implementing (and in some cases delivering) those educational campaigns
  • Informing the local population about available health care services
  • In some cases engaging in outreach and delivering service to remote/at-risk populations

Public health nurses are expected to be role models, spokespeople, and advocates. They are the face of the health profession to many of the people they deal with, especially if they are operating in less well-off communities. These nurses explain health science issues in a way the general public can understand.

A public health nurse may work to encourage people to get vaccinations or offer help for those who are struggling with issues such as substance abuse or eating disorders. They may deliver educational information about obesity or smoking cessation, addressing whatever issues are of greatest concern and are a threat to the overall health of the population in that area.

Depending on which area of public health nursing you choose to pursue, your day-to-day work may be very hands-on, or more focused on policies. Some nurses, especially those in cities with smaller populations, may have the opportunity to do a bit of both types of work in their day-to-day duties.

Where do public health nurses work?

We’ve covered a lot about public health nurses who work for their local government or health care authority, but public health nurses can work in other settings too, for example:

  • Academic research
  • Community outreach centers
  • International health agencies
  • Veteran’s centers
  • Military organizations
  • Non-profits
  • Schools and colleges (for outreach)
  • Hospitals
  • The local health department

As with so many other parts of nursing, those who choose to specialize in public health have a lot of freedom to pick the type of work they do, and the setting they do it in.

Educational requirements for a career in public health nursing

Training to become a public health nurse requires extensive study. The first step is to become a Registered Nurse, which means passing either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in nursing and then the NCLEX-RN exam. After this, you can enroll in a Master’s degree in nursing with a focus on public health.

What degrees should you pursue if you want a career in public health nursing?

The usual route into public health is to complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN), then enroll in a Master’s degree program (MSN), but it’s possible to earn the Master’s even if you haven’t completed a bachelor’s degree. Many universities offer an RN to MSN program for such students. This program will take longer than a standard BSN to MSN program because it needs to cover content that associate degree students will have missed, but the qualification awarded at the end of the program is just as respected.

It takes four to six years of full-time study to complete an ADN or BSN plus the Master’s degree. Many nurses take much longer than this, however, because once they’ve earned their nursing license they opt to start working in a healthcare setting and continue their studies part-time.

There are several bodies that award qualifications, set codes of conduct, and drive policies for public health nurses. The main ones are:

Each state or health authority will have its own preferences in terms of which bodies it recognizes or prefers to work with, so it’s a good idea to check with your current employer before pursuing certifications or joining an association.

What additional certifications are beneficial for someone in public health nursing?

It’s possible to find employment in the public health field with a Master’s degree, but many people opt to take their studies further, especially if they’re planning to pursue a job at a public policy level rather than working as a community health nurse.

Public health professionals who are looking to work in local government will find pursuing a doctoral degree or some additional certifications in public health will benefit them significantly. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers a number of certifications for Registered Nurses and Nurse Practitioners who are interested in pursuing a career in public health.

The Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing Certification is an entry-level certification aimed at newly-qualified RNs that provides a broad grounding in mental health. This is not the same as the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner certification, but it will give nurses who are interested in working in health care at a community or population level a better understanding of the mental health issues that are common today.

Another useful certification is the National Healthcare Disaster Certification (NHCD-BC). This qualification focuses on interdisciplinary working and disaster-preparedness. It covers how disasters can impact the health care system and approaches for disaster mitigation and response.

Someone who wishes to take their nursing practice even further while serving in public health could consider becoming a Public Health Nurse Practitioner. This requires a more advanced public health degree but gives the nurse a wider scope of practice and autonomy. Nurse practitioners tend to spend more time working out in the community, rather than attached to a government agency.

The typical career path of a public health nurse

Most people start their nursing careers as a Registered Nurse working in a general health care setting such as a ward, clinic, or doctor’s office. The transition to public health nursing comes later in their careers when they’re ready to be a Nurse Practitioner or an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse.

If you’re sure that public health is the field you’d like to work in, you can accelerate your progression into the field by taking advantage of the certifications and clinical experience options that arise during your day-to-day work.

Some people are drawn to public health because of an interest in a specific health issue. Perhaps they have the ambition to improve population health overall by promoting healthy eating or smoking cessation. These nurses may work their way up through the health department over many years, gaining respect and the ability to make true policy changes along the way.

How can you get started with a career as a public health nurse?

Once you’re qualified as a Registered Nurse, you can start training to enter the public health nursing field. If you’re working as a nurse while studying part-time for your master’s degree, you can still get some exposure to the subjects you’d need to know for a career in public health nursing.

Take every chance you get to study content on subjects such as:

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

Public health nurses need a broad understanding of the health issues that are common in the population, rather than a detailed knowledge of specific treatment methods. So, where someone who wanted to specialize in neonatal ICU would need to focus their efforts on neonatal care and the technologies and treatment approaches used in the ICU and emergency rooms, a would-be public health nurse is looking at a bigger but less detailed picture.

What are some off-the-beaten-path public health nursing career options?

If the BSN to MSN in Public Health full-time study route doesn’t appeal to you and you’re eager to do some work in a public health setting while you’re completing your studies, one option is to become a community health nurse and do outreach work.

Nurses who are enthusiastic, passionate and have good communication skills can have a big impact by working in community health, whether that’s serving disadvantaged communities or visiting schools and educating young people.

There’s a lot of demand for nurses to work in mobile units that travel around rural areas or other areas where access to health care services is limited, providing education and advice to residents who are at-risk or in need.

This role is a good option for a registered nurse who wants to earn some real-world experience before they move into the policy side of public health nursing once they are trained to the nurse practitioner level.

At the entry-level, education and advocacy are the key tasks of public health nurses. Senior public health nurses who work for local or central governments focus more on policies and the allocation of resources. These senior nurses have the ability to advocate for the populations they serve and find ways to improve access to essential health care services.

The benefits of a public health nursing career

Public health nursing has the potential to be rewarding both financially and thanks to the positive impact the nurse gets to have on the local community. Many nurses who move into public health also find the environment they’re working in to be more enjoyable than a traditional clinic or hospital environment, too.

What does a public health nurse earn?

The average salary of a public health nurse is $59,501, with the potential for much higher earnings than that with seniority. Public health nurses can expect their job to come with some other perks, such as annual bonuses, education, or even student loan forgiveness options, depending on where they work.

For a nurse who is interested in pursuing a DNP or other higher-level qualifications, finding an employer that is willing to invest in them and their skills can be a huge benefit.

What are the long-term benefits of a public health nursing career?

The potential for career advancement for a public health nurse is significant. A community health nurse who starts out as a registered nurse has the option of studying and improving their skills to become a nurse practitioner.

Those who work in local government or for a local health authority and who are operating on a policy level will find opportunities to move up the ranks to city-wide, state, or even federal positions if such things interest them.

Many senior nurses opt to move into public health because they find working in a hospital environment stressful. Nurses who thrived on the busy nature of an emergency room or who took pride in being hands-on in a standard ward may find that as they get older the long hours are too much for them.

Back injuries are common among nurses who have to prone or move patients on a regular basis, and long shifts can take a toll on a person’s mental health, especially for older nurses who have families to take care of.

Public health nursing represents an opportunity for nurses who are looking to step away from patient-facing care to still use the skills they worked so hard to obtain. Because those nurses have experience in hospitals and clinics, they understand the realities of health care and can use that knowledge to advocate for patients and make suggestions that will improve the state of health care for the nurses too.

Community nurses get to travel and be a voice for the health care system. Office-based public health nurses who drive policy decisions get to advocate for changes that will benefit everyone.

What are some benefits of a public health nursing career that most people don’t know about?

When most people think of nurses, they have a mental image of someone in scrubs with a stethoscope. To the general public, nurses take measurements, run diagnostics and provide day-to-day care.

Community health nurses may indeed do those things, but they also get to educate the population, advocate for vulnerable populations, give talks, run advice clinics and share their passion for health with the world.

Public health nurses get more opportunities to travel than a nurse who works at a fixed hospital. They’re also more likely to have opportunities to be interviewed in the media, speak at conferences, publish papers and spend time working on research.

Whether the idea of working in this part of the health sector appeals to you depends on whether you’re more academic and policy-inclined or whether it’s the practical side of nursing that drew you to the field. Someone who really enjoyed studying history, ethics, and policy during their bachelor’s degree may decide to focus on public health for their master’s degree because thinking about health care at scale is exciting to them.

Choosing a program for public health nursing

If you’ve decided to pursue a career in public health, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree in nursing with a focus on public health. There are many providers offering BSN to MSN programs, and some offer RN to MSN options allowing those who have been practicing without a bachelor’s degree to catch up on the material they missed and earn the master’s degree in one single course.

Where can you find the best public health nursing programs?

There are many universities offering MSN degrees with a specialization in public health. Some of the most respected programs available today include:

  • John Hopkins University
  • The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Walden University (Online Study)

John Hopkins University MSN in Public Health

John Hopkins University offers two public health degrees. One is a Master of Science in Nursing with a focus on public health. This is the degree that most nurses are likely to opt for, since it builds on the content they’ll have already studied in the BSN. The university also offers a Masters in Public Health for students who are coming from other study paths and who are more interested in working in public health policy and administration.

John Hopkins is a respected university and places are competitive. Applicants are expected to have a BSN, a valid RN license, and a 3.0 or better GPA.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte offers a Master of Science in Nursing with a focus on public health. The degree is available for online study with the option for students to study part-time over three years. The university reports a graduation rate of 83% for its master’s programs.

There are three intakes per year for the MSN, and applications are reviewed year-round. To apply, students must have a valid RN license and hold a Bachelor’s degree in a related field of study with a GPA of 3.0 or better. A Bachelor’s in Nursing is preferred, but students coming from other backgrounds may enroll as long as they commit to catch-up study to cover any modules that may have been missing from their previous degree.

Walden University (online study)

Walden University offers an online MSN in Public Health. Because this university specializes in online study, it offers highly flexible study options allowing students to decide how many quarters they study each year. The degree is priced per quarter hour, allowing students to pace their studies based on their time commitments and their budget.

Walden’s MSN in Public Health is accredited by the CCNE, allowing graduates to work in the health care sector in public health positions assuming they have passed the relevant licensing examinations.

How can you tell if a public health nursing program is right for you?

When you’re choosing a public health nursing program, there are several things you should take into account:

  • Location (Online / At a local university / Out of state)
  • Cost of the program
  • Study level
  • Whether the program can be studied part-time or not
  • Enrollment to faculty ratio
  • The details of the specialization
  • The reputation of the institution

Online study is probably the best option for a nurse who is already in employment, especially if there isn’t a university nearby that offers a suitable MSN qualification. If you do opt to study online, however, confirm that the university you work with is accredited and that any certifications you’ll earn along the way are recognized in your state.

Funding your study for a public health nursing degree

The cost can be a significant factor in the final decision for many would-be public health nurses, especially those who are considering a program that leads to a Nurse Practitioner award. There are several ways you can bring down the cost of your qualification.

The best universities often have scholarships and bursaries available to students who have a low income, or students from specific demographics that they’re hoping to reach. It’s worth checking with the student finance team to find out if you’d be eligible for any support. Do this early in the application process, before funding opportunities have run out.

Even if you aren’t eligible for support from the university directly, they may be able to direct you to other organizations that are offering funding to help nurses study. There are some organizations, such as the Nurse Corps, that offer scholarships for nurses in return for a period of service in the corps at the end of their studies.

Scholarships are frequently over-subscribed so they can be difficult to get, and where they are offered they’re usually provided on the condition that the student maintains a certain level of academic performance, so if you find yourself having to resit a class or getting poor grades you may either lose the scholarship or be required to pay out-of-pocket to resit the classes that you were struggling in.

If you are planning on self-funding your public health nursing degree, pay attention to not just the cost per quarter hour or per credit, but also any continuing enrollment fees. Spreading your studies over a longer period may reduce the amount of money you pay out per year, but the total cost of the degree will be higher due to continuing enrollment fees.

Why location matters when you study

Location is something many students overlook, but it’s also something that contributes to a lot of student dropouts. If you do decide to move away to study, it’s important to pick a destination that suits your lifestyle and that provides you with everything you need to be comfortable and happy.

Moving away to study means leaving behind your support network. The academic demands of a master’s degree are far higher than those of a bachelor’s degree, and this can place a lot of stress on students. Trying to focus on studies in a new area when you’re also worried about finances could be difficult.

Try to visit the university before you commit to studying there, and take a look around from the perspective of someone who is thinking of moving there:

  • Is the city walkable (assuming you won’t have a car)?
  • Are the halls of residence in a safe area?
  • Does the city have amenities you consider important (gyms, specific shops, etc)?
  • What social options are there at the university?
  • How expensive are basics such as food, toiletries?
  • How diverse is the enrollment, are you likely to fit in with the rest of your cohort?

Admission into the best MSN degrees is competitive, yet even with demanding admission criteria, a large portion of students end up dropping out due to either financial pressures or the academic demands of the program.

The best universities will do everything they can to support students academically, allowing them to retake classes or switch to a different track if they decide they’d prefer to study another specialization, but there’s still a lot of emphasis on the student to put the effort in. Whether you’re studying part-time while working, or have put your nursing career on hold to focus on the academic side of things, it’s much easier to succeed with a good support network behind you and if you’re comfortable with the environment you’re studying in.

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