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How to Become a Public Health Nurse

A public health nurse holds a unique position in healthcare. Instead of reporting to a doctor’s office or a hospital, a public health nurse works for the community. Public health nurses focus on education, screening, and disease prevention to promote the health of all community members. Their work involves a combination of nursing skills, community planning, and social outreach. Also, public health nurses often work with rural, low-income, and other underserved communities.

If this critical and impactful career appeals to you, you may be wondering how to become a public health nurse. The following overview presents typical paths toward this career goal, along with other useful information.

A public health nurse kneels down with an elderly patient in a nursing home while smiling and holding a clipboard.

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

The roles of public health nurses are as varied as the health needs of the communities they serve. If you establish yourself in this field, you may serve as an educator, public advocate, prevention specialist, or caregiver, to name a few.

The goal of any public health nurse is to support the health and well-being of whole populations, so outreach efforts often begin with children. If you take on such a role, you may work with schools. For example, you may promote healthful living and nutrition habits while addressing critical health threats such as obesity, diabetes, and smoking.

In addition to working with children, you may:

  • Deliver health services and education to individuals living in rural or low-income communities who often go without healthcare
  • Provide flu shots or other care at outpatient clinics for people who don’t have full health insurance benefits
  • Administer programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and serve at-risk mothers and young children

Public health nurses also play significant roles in disaster relief. They join forces with organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to administer emergency services and bring comfort and care to communities in distress.

At the heart of public health nurses’ work is the idea of improving the health and wellness of an entire society. They achieve this aim by bringing health education, services, and care to young, needy, and at-risk populations and communities that could otherwise slip through the cracks.

Public Health Nurse Skills

Public health is a discipline that focuses on the overall health of a specific population. It requires a wide range of competencies, including the following:

  • The ability to work with people, network, and build relationships
  • Fluency in education and social issues
  • Effective communication skills to interact with diverse people in different settings
  • Adaptability to work in many settings, including hospitals, government agencies, academic institutions, and research centers
  • Analytical skills essential to collecting and organizing data from reliable sources
  • Public speaking, writing, and presentation skills to share critical health information with audiences in public venues and various media, including social media
  • Empathy and listening skills to understand people’s concerns and needs

Where Do Public Health Nurses Work?

Public health nurses work for a variety of governmental agencies as well as nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations. Public health nurses build careers with agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and state and local health organizations. Public health nurses also work with organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, and the Peace Corps.

Work settings for public health nurses have grown to include nursing homes, housing developments, neighborhood centers, and church parishes, among many others. As a public health nurse, you may serve as an advocate and work with community, nonprofit, governmental, or nongovernmental organizations to secure funding for programs that help teen mothers, the elderly, the homeless, and other at-risk groups.

Steps for Becoming a Public Health Nurse

If becoming a public health nurse seems like the right career move for you, here is an overview of the key steps you’ll need to take.

Step 1: Meet Public Health Nurse Education Requirements

To begin a career as a public health nurse, you must first become a registered nurse (RN), which entails passing the NCLEX-RN (National Council of Licensure Examination). Some organizations may accept RNs with an associate degree for entry-level positions. Still, earning an undergraduate degree, such as an online RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), is usually required for those seeking public health nurse positions.

In earning a BSN degree, you can gain a foundation in the essentials of public health nursing, including prevention, population health, collaboration within the healthcare profession, and public health policy, from regulations to funding. Other topics covered include caregiving, community outreach, and education.

Step 2: Gain Nursing Experience

In preparing for a career as a public health nurse, it is essential to gain hands-on experience while working toward your BSN degree. Students should consider volunteering with neighborhood associations, nursing homes, hospices, or health advocacy groups. The combination of a BSN degree and volunteer work will facilitate finding jobs in the nursing field. Before taking a position as a public health nurse, you will need two or three years of experience working as a registered nurse in a hospital, nursing home, or other medical institution.

Step 3: Connect with Public Health Organizations

While working toward your BSN degree and gaining experience as a registered nurse, you can find opportunities to build your public health nursing credentials with national and international organizations. Among these are the following:

  • The American Red Cross, which offers internships to students and volunteer opportunities for students and graduates alike
  • The Peace Corps, where a tour of service may confer preferred status for public health nurses seeking positions with government organizations
  • The World Health Organization, which reports nursing shortages among 50% of its member nations

Public Health Nurse Salaries

According to PayScale, the median annual salary for public health nurses is around $59,400. Below is a breakdown of yearly compensation at the lower and higher ends of the range:

  • The lowest 10% of the range earn less than $44,000
  • The highest 10% earn more than $86,000

Salary ranges can vary widely depending on many factors, including location, certifications, degrees, experience, and specific responsibilities. Additionally, supervisory roles and advanced degrees may bring higher salaries.

Benefits packages for public health nurses are usually generous. Nurses employed by governmental agencies, such as HHS and the CDC, are eligible for substantial pension and retirement programs.

Future Growth of Public Health Nurse Jobs

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts a bright employment outlook for the nursing profession overall, including a 12% increase in registered nursing jobs from 2018 to 2028. The BLS also projects a rise of 11% in employment of health educators and community health workers — a category that includes public health nurses — by 2028.

The nursing field is growing in part because the population is getting older, people are living longer, and older people generally need more care. Other factors that contribute to the boom in nursing jobs include an uptick in natural disasters, the opioid crisis, and pandemics. These types of situations call for the kinds of health education and care that public health nurses offer.

Creating a highly qualified nursing workforce requires education that advances clinical competency in nurses. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reports that trends suggest that 64% of hospital nurses will have a bachelor’s degree by 2020.

Learn More About Public Health Nursing Careers

The demand for public health nurses is increasing, making it an excellent option for those looking for a career in medicine.

Learn how Maryville University’s online RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program can prepare you with the skills and knowledge required to become a public health nurse.

Recommended Readings
A Look at a Career in Travel Nursing

The Future of Telehealth: An Inside Look at the Merger of Tech & Healthcare

RN to BSN Online Information Session

American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), “Creating a More Highly Qualified Nursing Workforce”

American Public Health Association, Public Health Nursing

Maryville University, Bachelor of Science Nursing (RN to BSN)

Maryville University, Career Opportunities for Nurses: Opening Doors with a BSN

PayScale, Average Public Health Nurse Hourly Pay

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Educators and Community Health Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses

World Health Organization, Nursing and Midwifery