Career Advice

Five Steps to Becoming a Public Health Nurse

As the world reacts to international health crises like COVID-19, there has been an increase in the need for public health nurses over the past few years. They have a responsibility to inform the public and advance the general health of a community or group. They serve as role models for the neighborhood, spotting hazards and trends that can be harmful to a population’s well-being. A job as a public health nurse can be a good fit for you if you enjoy helping people and are passionate about healthcare.

In this post, we go over what a public health nurse is, what they do, how much money they make, where they work, and how to become one.

What exactly do public health nurses do?

A registered nurse who works to improve the health of an entire community or particular population through illness prevention and health promotion is known as a public health nurse. They promote long-term health and work to widen access to care, particularly for disadvantaged or marginalized groups.

What is the role of a public health nurse?

A public health nurse carries out routine nursing tasks but mostly acts as a community educator. Your responsibilities as a public health nurse often consist of:

  • Immunization administration: Public health nurses may be requested to visit a place of business or a school to provide vaccinations to the general public or to participate in a medical team providing free immunizations.
  • Analyzing population data: They look at population statistics to find health problems and possible dangers in a community. Public health nurses also gather data on the nation’s youth, adults, and elderly to determine the general health problems they encounter. Together with other healthcare experts, they develop community-beneficial public health activities based on this data.
  • Training other medical professionals: Public health nurses might be tasked with training other medical professionals and informing hospitals and clinics about recurring patterns in community health problems or treatments for patients with underlying medical concerns.
  • Increasing public knowledge of local health issues: Public health nurses can assist in developing creative strategies to raise people’s awareness of a health concern or sickness prevention. This could entail collaborating with marketing or PR experts to develop PSAs, leaflets, billboard commercials, or creative approaches to raise public consciousness about a health issue or sickness prevention.
  • Finding patterns of abuse and neglect: Public health nurses assist in finding and reporting patterns involving domestic abuse and child neglect inside a community by federal legislation.
  • Preparing for potential outbreaks of disease: In the event of widespread contamination or an ecological or biohazardous disaster, public health nurses may assist in developing plans. They must keep abreast of regional, national, and international diseases and collaborate with local, regional, and state officials to develop contingency plans in the event of a disease outbreak.

How to train to work as a public health nurse

The actions to do to become a public health nurse are as follows:

1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing

Obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from a program recognized by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) is the first requirement for working as a public health nurse. An associate’s or bachelor’s degree program can be used to become a nurse, but a BSN is necessary to obtain public health certification. Anatomy and physiology, biology, biomedical statistics, nutrition, and chemistry should all be covered in the course material. To get the finest bachelor’s degree program for you, make sure to look over the various options and their course offers.

2. Become NCLEX-RN certified.

To practice as a registered nurse (RN), you must hold a license after receiving your nursing degree. To qualify as a licensed RN in the United States, candidates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination – Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN). It demonstrates that you possess the clinical expertise, analytical ability, and capabilities required of a beginning RN. As a public health nurse, you will only have a little number of patient care duties, but you still need a license to give shots and take medications.

3. Acquire working knowledge

You can apply for nursing positions after receiving your license. To gather experience, most public health nurses begin their careers in various nursing roles. Before getting admitted into the public health area, you might need to have a particular set of skills and qualifications. Make careful to list both your professional experience and educational accomplishments on your CV. Additionally, you should modify your cover letter and resume to match the position and business to which you are applying.

4. Earn certifications

Professional certification can increase your employability and give you specialized training in your area of expertise. Certain employers in the field of public health could also demand certification.

  • National Healthcare Disaster Certification (NHDP-BC)
  • Certified Public Health (CPH)

No new certifications are being accepted for the Advanced Public Health Nursing Certification – Board Certified (APHN-BC). For current owners, it can be renewed.

5. Think about graduate degrees

Your position as a public health nurse might be considerably enhanced by obtaining a doctorate or master’s degree in nursing in the field. You can get administrative positions, better pay, and new skills to use in your community health initiatives by pursuing higher education.

Education for Public Health Nurses

Although a BSN is frequently preferred or required by employers, a public health RN is only legally required to have an associate degree in nursing (ADN) to become an RN. Additionally, certification calls for at least a bachelor’s degree. You can apply for certification after graduating from a graduate course of study in public health that has been approved by the Council on Education for Public Health, proving your proficiency in the field.

An ADN degree

A high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate is often all that is needed to get admitted to an ADN program, which lasts two years to finish. Typically, tuition is less than for a BSN. This makes it a suitable choice for those with limited funds or those seeking to start making money right away. However, many organizations, particularly for managerial jobs, want or demand a BSN.

  • Admissions Requirements: A high school diploma or GED certificate is necessary. Some need a GPA of 2.0 or above.
  • Education Curriculum: Less emphasis on theory and general healthcare than for a BSN, with a greater emphasis on nursing practice abilities.
  • Time Required: Two years
  • Skills Acquired: Practical nursing abilities, such as patient care, testing, data collection, and patient safety

A BSN degree

A BSN is a four-year degree that covers more nursing and healthcare philosophy than an ADN. This offers a broader viewpoint that an ADN could find less useful and that a public health RN may find more useful. However, it often takes longer and costs more per hour of credit than an ADN.

  • Admission requirements: vary greatly, but often include a minimum GPA of 3.0 and a high school diploma or GED. A 3.25 GPA or better, as well as good scientific and math coursework, may be needed to get into more selective colleges.
  • The curriculum of the program: practical nursing abilities, patient education and communication, the operation of the healthcare system, and disease prevention
  • Time Required: Four Years
  • Skills Acquired: Learned competencies include basic health research, patient interaction and instruction, infection control, and patient safety.

An MPH degree

The master of public health degree offers additional study on the principles of public health and prepares you for managerial positions or other advanced jobs in the field. Even more information on epidemiology, socioeconomic determinants of health, policy making, and public health are covered in the curriculum.

  • Admission requirements: Bachelor’s degree and, often, a GPA of 3.0 or better are prerequisites for admission.
  • The curriculum of the program: Policy making, statistics, demography, research techniques, and applied behavioral sciences are all covered in the social science of public health curriculum.
  • Time required: Usually two years
  • Skills Acquired: Policy analysis, research, health informatics, statistics, and leadership are some of the skills acquired.

Certification and Licensing for Public Health Nurses

How does one become a nurse in public health? To start with, you must graduate from a recognized nursing program and pass the NCLEX-RN test to become a registered nurse. Although not needed by law, certification shows your understanding of and dedication to public health, and many businesses strongly prefer or demand it.

Obtaining an RN license requires passing the multiple-choice NCLEX-RN exam. You must apply to your state board of nursing and have graduated from a recognized nursing program to be able to take the exam. Depending on your state, there can be additional fees to apply for a license in addition to the $200 exam price.

The National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the Certification in Public Health (CPH) certificate. You need either an undergraduate degree and a minimum of five years of public health experience, or an advanced degree and three years of experience, to be eligible for the test. You can also have a doctorate or master’s degree in public health. The exam is $385 and can be taken at a testing facility or with a live proctor.

What Locations Do Public Health Nurses Work?

Public health nurses operate in a range of public settings because they concentrate more on entire neighborhoods than on specific individuals. Here are five potential workplaces for public health nurses and their related duties:

Community Clinics

In clinics, public health nurses deal with a range of health issues while working directly with the community. They will be at the forefront of creating educational programs to instruct the community about how to improve general health as a result of these experiences. Either individuals or communities can benefit from this guidance.

Governmental Institutions

Public health nurses are used by county, state, and federal health departments. They will concentrate on creating policies that will enhance the general health of whole populations. These jobs frequently place more of an emphasis on paperwork and administration than on specific patients.

Outpatient Clinics

People frequently visit outpatient clinics for medical issues. Public health nurses can meet patients’ immediate needs, order testing, and possibly even prescribe medication, but they can also play an important part in public health education.

Public health nurses in schools will assist kids and their parents in addressing problems in schools. They will assist teach kids about personal cleanliness, sexual health, and other topics, as well as how to take care of their health and avoid illness. Additionally, these nurses will keep an eye out for abuse or neglect symptoms in children who are at risk.

Non-Profit Organizations

With the assistance of public health nurses, several organizations assist in providing health solutions to individuals in need. These organizations include the Red Cross, the Peace Corps, and Doctors Without Borders. Disaster relief, safe drinking water, schooling, family planning, sanitation, sexual wellness, and other tasks are among the responsibilities of public health nurses.

Salary Expectations for Public Health Nurses

The salary expectations for public health nurses can vary based on factors such as education, experience, geographic location, and the employing organization. Generally, public health nurses earn competitive salaries that reflect their specialized knowledge and skills in promoting community health.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for registered nurses, which includes public health nurses, was $75,330 as of May 2020. However, it’s important to note that salaries can vary significantly based on factors specific to the public health field.

Public health nurses may also have the opportunity to advance their careers and increase their earning potential by pursuing advanced degrees, such as a Master of Public Health (MPH) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Advanced degrees can open doors to leadership positions, research roles, and teaching opportunities, which often come with higher salaries.

It’s important for individuals interested in a career as a public health nurse to research salary ranges specific to their location and the employing organization to gain a more accurate understanding of the salary expectations in their desired field. Additionally, factors such as benefits, work-life balance, and the opportunity to make a positive impact on community health should also be considered when evaluating the overall value of a career in public health nursing.

Why Work as a PHN?

Public health nursing often appeals to RNs who desire to foster wellness, teach others, and guarantee access to healthcare for entire communities because of its broad focus on at-risk and disadvantaged populations. For nurses devoted to having a positive impact on underserved populations, public health nursing offers considerable professional and personal rewards despite its limitations.

Benefits of Becoming a PHN Checkmark icon

  • Rising demand for jobs, particularly in underdeveloped and economically disadvantaged regions
  • Possibility of job progression in administration and policy
  • Opportunities for advocacy and activism to improve the standard, availability, and security of healthcare are available
  • Helping communities achieve their healthcare demands provides personal satisfaction

The Drawbacks of Becoming a PHN

  • Risk of bodily harm or emotional distress when working with vulnerable populations or during emergencies
  • Working without the guidance of a trained nurse
  • Stress may result from limited funding and resources in the public and nonprofit sectors.
  • Compared to other nursing specializations, lower pay

Professional Associations for PHNs

American Public Health Association

The American Public Health Association (APHA), which represents over twenty-five thousand public health professionals, promotes federal public health legislation and runs public awareness programs. A yearly conference and expo are also held by APHA. The largest student-run public health organization in the country, APHA Student Assembly, automatically admits student members.

Association of Public Health Nurses

Public health nursing is improved through APHN. The association promotes professional norms, offers learning opportunities, and develops national public health policies. Students registered in nursing courses for public health may qualify for a discounted membership rate.

Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health

The ASPPH represents CEPH-accredited public health institutions and programs. The association bestows awards on teachers and employees at its member institutions to acknowledge contributions to academic study and practice. Current college students and recent graduates are eligible to apply for fellowship and internship opportunities through the ASPPH.

Public health nurse versus public health specialist

Find out what makes a public health specialist different from a public health nurse.

Many of the duties of public health professionals can be carried out by public health nurses. The ability to care for patients is perhaps the biggest distinction between doctors and nurses—nurses have the training and clinical experience necessary to do so. Unlike other categories of nurses, public health nurses may concentrate on treating a population rather than an individual.

Those who desire to work in public health nursing must be registered nurses, while certain entry-level positions may simply require a BSN. An MSN is advised due to the frequent need for leadership in this position.

The goal of public health professionals is to enhance medical results through research, instruction, and prevention. This can cover topics including nutrition, occupational health, illness etiology, environmental health, and more.

Depending on their position, a public health specialist may be responsible for the following duties:

  • Plan and carry out research projects to enhance public health outcomes.
  • Research and write up information on infection and disease trends.
  • Apply statistical and qualitative techniques to data analysis.
  • Give organizations input on how they might enhance employee safety and well-being.
  • Inform stakeholders and physicians about research findings.
  • Create, carry out, and oversee public health initiatives.

A public health nurse may assist in implementing interventions, particularly if they involve providing care, even though a public health professional may be in charge of designing the interventions.


Becoming a public health nurse offers a rewarding and fulfilling career path for those passionate about promoting community health and making a positive impact on the well-being of populations. With a strong educational foundation in nursing and a specialization in public health, individuals can embark on a journey that involves collaboration, advocacy, and the implementation of evidence-based interventions. Public health nurses have the opportunity to work in various settings, address pressing public health issues, and contribute to the improvement of health outcomes on a larger scale. By embracing the values of equity, inclusivity, and social justice, public health nurses can play a vital role in creating healthier communities and shaping the future of public health.

Frequently Asked Questions about Public Health Nurses

The following are responses to frequently asked questions about the field of public health nursing:

  • What distinguishes a public health nurse from an RN?

An RN having particular training in responding to public health emergencies is a public health nurse. Public health nurses, like registered nurses (RNs), must maintain their nursing licenses by fulfilling state-mandated continuing education requirements.

  • Where are public health nurses employed?

Public health nurses are an essential component of private as well as public organizations due to the nature of their work. They are respected workers in a variety of workplaces, including:

  • Local health authorities
    • Community health centers
    • Clinics for non-patients
    • Governmental agencies
    • Worldwide health organizations
    • Charitable organizations
    • Home health care providers
    • American military
    • Educational institutes and schools
    • Research
    • Hospitals
  • What does a public health nurse make on average?

Public health nurses get an average yearly pay of $69,249 in the United States. An estimated $11,250 is paid in overtime per year. The top five cities for salaries are as follows:

  • Washington, D.C.
    • Albany, NY
    • Atlanta, Georgia
    • SF, California
    • NYC’s Bronx
  • What does public health nursing entail?

The term “public health nursing” refers to a practice that uses the social, public health, and nursing sciences to promote and safeguard the health of the community. A community’s general health is the primary concern of public health nursing, which also works to prevent sickness and infirmity and promote good health.

  • What is a public health nurse’s job description?

Community activists, educators, and suppliers of essential public health services are termed public health nurses. They play a crucial role by concentrating more on long-term safety and healthcare, especially for the most vulnerable members of society. A community’s ability to prevent health catastrophes, like disease outbreaks and catastrophic events, and to recover after them depends heavily on the work of public health nurses.

  • Is being a public health nurse a wise career move?

Because of the public’s ongoing need for healthcare, the field of nursing as a whole is expanding. According to government figures, the amount of registered nursing jobs is predicted to increase by 7% between 2019 and 2029, which is higher than the average for all jobs. An average registered nurse makes $73,300 annually.

  • What distinguishes public health professionals from public health nurses?

Although both are concerned with public health, the requirements for nurses and experts differ. Most public health positions, like environmental health specialists and epidemiologists, don’t need certification; however, nurses must possess medical expertise and clinical expertise to be certified. Community health is the primary focus of public health practitioners, although public health nurses must still provide patient care, dispense medication, and collaborate with doctors.

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