Public Health Nurse Career and Education Guide
Public Health Nurse At a Glance
What you’ll do: Work with a population to provide outreach and education to patients.
Where you’ll work: Health departments, community organizations, nonprofits
Degree you’ll need: Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
Median annual salary: $77,600
Public health nurses are instrumental in assessing population-level health issues, designing outreach and education efforts, and helping the community at large become healthier. You must be licensed as a registered nurse (RN) to work as a public health nurse.
Communities rely on public health nurses more than ever, explains Julie Plagenhoef, MPH, RN, a maternal and child health consultant at the Oregon Health Authority and board member of Oregon Public Health Association and the Oregon Center for Nursing. “Especially in recent years, we’ve been advocates for health equity,” she says.
That could translate to free vision screenings, mass vaccination events, smoking cessation support groups, harm reduction practices for people who misuse substances, and countless other efforts.
How to Become a Public Health Nurse
Consider these steps as you pursue a degree as a public health nurse:
Earn your nursing degree.
“Earning your BSN is the way to go,” Plagenhoef says. Nearly every public health nursing job will require the four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, as opposed to a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). “Do your best to take community health nursing classes in nursing school,” Plagenhoef says.
Earn your RN license.
Once you earn your nursing degree from an accredited program, you qualify to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX. You must pass this standardized nursing exam, administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, to become a registered nurse (RN).
There is no longer a public health certification specifically for nurses, Plagenhoef explains, so you do not need a specific certification to land a job. “If you weren’t able to take specialized classes in public health nursing or community health nursing, and you don’t have any background in public health, earning a (non-nursing-specific) certification in public health can be a pathway into the career,” she says. The Certified in Public Health credential (CPH) offered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners demonstrates your mastery of public health sciences, including epidemiology and community health theory.
In some cases, you can go directly from nursing school into public health nursing, Plagenhoef says. More competitive jobs prefer candidates with previous experience, such as time spent working in a hospital or clinic. You can also leverage an internship or practicum spent in the public health field to demonstrate your readiness for a role you want.
Consider an advanced degree.
Not everyone needs an advanced degree to work in public health nursing. Depending on your career goals, though, you may consider earning a Master of Public Health (MPH) or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). These graduate degrees can qualify you to advance into supervisory or managerial roles, and they may help if you want to focus on policy.
How Long Does It Take?
A BSN program typically takes four years to complete. Nursing programs include both classroom work and clinical experience.
If you go the advanced degree route, you will need more time to complete that education. An MPH typically takes two more years, though that time can be reduced if your program applies your previous studies or work experience to cover requirements.
An MSN typically takes two to three years to complete. While most people earn a bachelor’s and then a master’s in nursing, some programs have adapted coursework to accommodate RNs who do not have a four-year-degree. These programs may take longer to complete.
What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?
“The key thing about public health nurses is that they are taking care of the community across the lifespan,” says Plagenhoef. “They are population- and systems-focused, taking care of individuals as well, in all areas of physical, mental, social, and environmental health.”
A public health nurse’s responsibilities vary from job to job:
Types of Public Health Nurses
The type of public health nurse you become will probably depend on where you work. “It’s about 50/50 in terms of public health nurses who focus on one specialty and those who are generalists,” Plagenhoef says.
She says that working in a small health department, community organization, or nonprofit will likely mean you’ll need to wear many hats. On any given day, you may do outreach work to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, help people sign up for social supports such as food stamps, and provide a patient with lactation support.
In other instances—particularly in larger organizations—public health nurses may specialize. Public health touches on many, many areas, including diabetes, reproductive health, maternal health, tuberculosis control, HIV/AIDS prevention, and others. In these cases, you may be able to find a specialized position where you can focus on your passion.
In some cases, public health nurses may specialize in areas such as diabetes, reproductive health, maternal health, tuberculosis control, and others.
Some public health nurses focus on a particular type of care. Some work almost exclusively by visiting patients in their homes, for example, and others may spend most of their time providing direct patient care in a clinic.
Job Comparison: Public Health Nurse vs Community Health Nurse
Registered nurses in the U.S. earn a median annual wage of $77,600, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Actual income varies and is influenced by workplace, geography, role, and other factors.
“It’s a challenging piece of public health nursing: In some areas, salary can be comparable to a nurse working in a hospital, for instance,” Plagenhoef says. That said, most public health nurses earn less than the average RN.
“The balance is that public health nurses generally have very good benefits,” she says. As public employees, their compensation usually includes good medical and retirement benefits.
In addition, “you typically don’t have to work weekends or holidays. Having a regular schedule is a real draw for the profession,” Plagenhoef says.
Skills and Traits
“All nurses have advanced assessment and planning skills to intervene and promote physical, mental, social, and environmental wellbeing,” Plagenhoef says. “(Public health nurses) apply all those skills not only to the individual, but to the whole community and systems.” She explains that several other skills and traits are important in public health nursing.
According to the BLS, demand for RNs is growing at a rate of 9%, which is about average for all careers. Depending on where you live—or where you are willing to relocate—demand could be greater for public health nurses, Plagenhoef says.
“We see a high demand in the field, but not necessarily because there are too few nurses in a given state,” she says. “There are a lot of nurses in hospitals, but not a lot on long-term care, home health, and public health nursing. There is a maldistribution of nurses.”
That can translate to difficulty in hiring enough public health nurses to fill all roles, particularly in rural areas and communities with a low average income. Motivated students, then, may find this is an excellent time to pursue a career in public health nursing.
In addition, some areas are rolling out or expanding public health programs in pursuit of greater health equity—programs they will need nurses to run. For example, Oregon is scaling up a program that will enable mothers of infants to receive home visits from a RN.
“That will require a large influx of public health nurses so everyone in Oregon who wants it can access it,” Plagenhoef says. “That’s definitely job security.”
These resources may provide some guidance as you consider a nursing career in the field of public health:
American Public Health Association advocates for systems-level changes to improve public health and informs public policy.
The public health association in your state is a terrific resource for local issues and networking opportunities.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the nationwide governmental body that provides public health guidance.