What Is A Public Health Nurse In The USA?

By ShiftMed Team//Nursing Profession
Public health nurse traveling to work

What factors affect health the most? If you are a public health nurse, you believe that wellness isn’t just about an individual but the community they live in and the population to which they belong.

Public health nurses are registered nurses who specialize in population healthcare. 

They are community-based nurses whose work centers around resolving health problems and improving access to care for people in specific socioeconomic groups. 

A public health nurse (PHN) helps create community-level health interventions that lead to excellent education, awareness, and access to quality health care. They comprise the largest portion of America’s public health workforce and work in various settings, such as public health clinics, schools, and correctional facilities.

Public health nursing was invented in 1893 by Lillian Wald, a nurse, humanitarian, and founder of the Henry Street Settlement. Ms. Ward created the Henry Street Settlement as a refuge for children, families, and poverty-stricken individuals. 

The Henry Street Settlement provided a haven for children and people who lacked care and resources. Today, the Henry Street Settlement remains a not-for-profit social service dedicated to reducing juvenile delinquency and improving community welfare. 

If you are passionate about health education, you may love working as a public health nurse.

How is public health nursing different from nursing?

Public health nurses specialize in community health and the healthcare of a specific population. They develop health interventions, care plans, and education campaigns to help people overcome specific challenges where they live. 

As a public health nurse, your career focus is on large-scale, long-term improvement of health and wellness in a community or particular group of people. Clinical nursing focuses on direct patient care in various settings, such as hospitals and doctor’s offices. 

Public health nurses’ jobs have a more significant focus; they spend time educating communities about disease prevention, hygiene, and safety. They also help develop plans to make it easier for people to access healthcare, including preventative screenings and vaccinations. 

Instead of waiting for patients to be admitted to a facility, public health nurses travel to communities in need. They provide services to patients at specific access points, like vaccine stations, pop-up health clinics, and blood drives.

To become a humanitarian nurse, you could look into public health nursing and work opportunities in developing nations.

What qualifications does a public health nurse need?

Public health nurses need at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) and a certification as a public health nurse — the CPH from the National Board of Public Health Examiners. 

To earn their CPH, public health nurses must hold a valid RN license, a bachelor’s degree, and at least five years of public health nursing experience. Alternatively, they can hold an advanced degree (master’s or doctoral) and have three years of public health nursing experience. 

Students can also apply if they have at least three years of experience and graduated from a program of public health with Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accreditation. 

Recommended Reading - How to become a public health nurse in The USA?

What does a public health nurse do day to day?

Public health nurses have a wide range of community health, welfare, and disease prevention tasks. Their tasks vary significantly based on their work, whether for a non-profit or government organization.

Some of the responsibilities of a public health nurse are:

  • Providing assessments and healthcare to patients of all ages in community healthcare settings 

  • Collaborating with public health figures, such as social workers and physicians, to develop care plans

  • Developing health education campaigns and delivering informative talks in schools and other locations

  • Collaborating with members of a healthcare team to develop and implement care plans following organizational policies and patient care models

  • Administering vaccines to patients for a variety of illnesses, such as COVID-19, influenza, and shingles

  • Providing continuous care to patients in at-risk, underserved communities

  • Offering health education to patients in homes and community clinics

  • Teaching patients how to lead healthier lifestyles while respecting their cultural differences and potential barriers or resistance to treatment

As you can see, no two public health nurses’ jobs are the same. Many offer direct patient care, but others spend their days organizing campaigns and arranging healthcare services for specific populations. 

It all depends on where you work and the type of public health nursing you want to provide.

Where do public health nurses work?

Public health nurses can work in hospitals, healthcare companies, government organizations, and even the United States Army. They are genuinely needed everywhere.

No matter where your passions lie, what specialties you want to pursue, and what type of patients you want to work with, there is an opportunity in public health nursing. 

According to Zippia, there are currently 15,837 public health nurses in the United States, and they are 59% more likely to work for government companies than in the private sector.

What is it like to be a public health nurse?

One of the greatest feelings from public health nursing comes when you know you’re giving someone care and education they’d never receive otherwise. But unfortunately, we are not all fortunate enough to have the same access to health knowledge and resources, even when we live close to one another.

Being a public health nurse opens your eyes to other people's struggles, making you far more understanding of other people’s lived experiences. 

As a public health nurse, your career focuses on making communities safer, healthier, and better for everyone. 

If you work for a community-based company, you’ll often find yourself giving direct care to patients in walk-in clinics or government-funded facilities. These patients present with a wide range of conditions, many of which have been struggling with health issues for a long time due to an inability to pay for healthcare. 

You’ll likely address immediate concerns like acute care conditions, illnesses, and vaccines in outpatient facilities. For example, you may help physicians collect lab samples, draw blood, and administer medication to people.

Working in a school, you help parents and educators understand how to recognize, intervene, and manage an array of physical, psychological, and developmental problems that affect kids at different ages. 

You also help educate children on disease prevention, sexual health, and personal hygiene, depending on their grade level.

Public health nurses can also help run anti-bullying campaigns and monitor children who are considered at-risk. They may also be the ones who intervene when they notice signs of neglect or possible child abuse.

Of course, there are also plenty of voluntary organizations that need qualified public nurses, too. So whether it’s the Red Cross or Peace Corps, you can use your skills and education to use helping people in developing nations access healthcare, clean drinking water, education, family planning, and more. 

How much do public health nurses make?

Public health nurse salaries are some of the most varied in the field. Because their work environments vary so much, it’s impossible to give a definitive figure. However, we can look at the average salary of a registered nurse in the United States to get an idea of how much you should earn as a public health nurse.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average RN salary in May 2021 was $77,600. However, their earnings differed slightly based on where they worked, such as government organizations and general/surgical hospitals. 

Read more: How much do public health nurses make in The USA?

Advantages and disadvantages of a career as a public health nurse

Is public health nursing a promising career? If you love the idea of public health education and campaigning for the greater welfare of a population, you will likely love this field. 

If you’re interested in becoming a public health nurse, these pros and cons will help you decide if it’s a good fit.

Advantages of choosing a career as a public health nurse

1) Make a major difference in people’s lives

All nurses impact their patients. But public health nurses make an even more significant difference by treating people in the greatest need at any given time. For example, you could provide hands-on care to people in Africa or deliver education to families in rural, low-income areas in the United States.

People depend on public health nurses, and you always know that your skills are going to the best possible use with your patients.

Hearing people’s stories, learning from their experiences, and making a difference in their lives makes this career worth it.

2) Advocate for change

Whether it’s better to care for LGBTQ individuals or underfunded Black communities, public health nurses are a voice for everyone. They work tirelessly to advocate for those whose voices are often unheard and whose needs are typically overlooked. 

Public health nurses go out of their way to create social change and help people live better lives, no matter their challenges.

3) Creative opportunities 

Public health nurses must be excellent communicators who develop innovative ways to get people’s attention. Most people aren’t helped by simple brochures left on a clinic counter. Instead, they need campaigns that speak directly to them, and being a public health nurse allows you to use your imagination. 

4) A variety of work environments

You can decide whether you want to perform public health nursing locally or abroad. You can work for the Army or care for people in walk-in clinics. It all depends on you and what populations you want to care for.

Disadvantages of choosing a career as a public health nurse

1) Treating patients in poor conditions

It can be infuriating as a nurse to see people with treatable conditions suffering from a lack of care. But unfortunately, even less education can lead to widespread disease and suffering that doesn’t impact more fortunate areas. 

Seeing patients in such dire need can wear on your mental health, and compassion fatigue isn’t uncommon in this line of work. But, sometimes, you can also struggle with feeling helpless and wondering whether you really can make a difference in especially challenged communities.

2) Lack of resources

Many rural areas are particularly short on medical supplies and healthcare resources. As a result, nurses tend to patients whose conditions need more extensive care, but they only have limited supplies to help. 

Whether it’s a lack of space, materials, or budget for creating educational campaigns, you will likely experience shortages regularly. 

3) Stressful work

Removing barriers to healthcare and stigmas about certain conditions takes a lot of tireless, thankless work. You’ll tend to work long hours, and the amount of work it takes to reach progress benchmarks in a community can be overwhelming.

And while many patients are grateful, some are wary of trusting your advice. Many may even directly go against care plans, which only perpetuates the problems you’re trying to help a community overcome. 

How to become a public health nurse

Start by earning your bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), and look for programs that offer courses in public health nursing. You could also consider adding a minor in public health administration. 

During nursing school, look for opportunities to intern in public health settings. Once you’ve passed the NCLEX and gotten your RN, continue building experience. You can also immediately begin to apply for jobs in public health.

Earn a master’s degree or doctoral degree in public health nursing. This will give you the education you need to make profound differences in the population’s health. Then, after 3 to 5 years, you’ll be able to apply for your CPH certification.

Frequently asked questions about public health nurses

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

It takes at least four years to earn a bachelor’s degree if you have no prior college experience. To achieve a master’s and CPH, you’ll need to dedicate at least five years to your studies and gaining clinical experience. 

Do public health nurses work in hospitals?

Not typically. Public health nurses usually go where there is a need for services, and government organizations often dispatch them. This results in walk-in clinics and community health centers. Some also work overseas. 

Is public health better than nursing? 

Public health has a more significant focal point than traditional nursing, but neither is “better” than the other. It all depends on your perspective, the type of jobs you like to do, and the patients you want to work with.

What courses are in public health nursing?

Suppose you’re thinking of studying to become a public health nurse. In that case, you’ll take courses in public health, primary care for families, family health, community health, social psychology, advanced physical assessment, advanced physiology, and nursing informatics. 

Those who specialize in certain types of medicine, such as addiction and substance abuse or mental health, will take additional courses in their area of specialty.