Finding Your RN Specialty: Become a Public Health Nurse

In many cases, a registered nurse (or RN) works one-on-one with patients in a hospital or private practice setting. However, some RNs take up the cause of looking out for the health and well-being of entire communities. These nurses are public health nurses. If you think you may want to work with your community to help raise awareness of health issues that impact large groups of people, or advocate for creating healthy habits in neighborhoods, towns, and beyond — a career as a public health nurse might be right for you.

Learn more about public health nursing, the training involved to become one, and how these nurses play a critical role in helping improve the health of entire populations.

The Role of a Public Health Nurse

Public health nursing, by definition, involves focusing on the health needs of a population with an eye on preventing diseases and/or health conditions. This can involve addressing the health needs of a broader population, as well as advocating for the health of underserved communities or the most vulnerable within a broader community.

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

A public health nurse’s responsibilities include studying health issues that impact the public and then educating people around health habits and disease prevention. In order to do this, public health nurses are constantly reviewing health trends and information in order to share it with the general public, as well as specific geographic regions and communities within those areas. They also study health risk factors to prevent disease among the most vulnerable and raise community awareness about healthcare programs, preventive care, screenings and immunizations.

Public health nurses can work in a variety of settings. They may work in an office environment, with government agencies, or at community health centers. These nurses also travel to different places within their communities. Sometimes, they’ll present information to schools, community centers, or at events at local clinics or wellness centers.

Why is Public Health Nursing Important?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), public health nurses account for the largest group of public health professionals working in state, local, and national health departments throughout the US. These nurses serve as educators and advocates for the health of the population as a whole, as well as underserved populations. Public health nurses work to shine a spotlight on the need for better access to healthcare, new services, and education around preventive care, raising these concerns to the attention of authorities within multiple tiers of government in order to create positive changes.

While public health nurses strive to educate the public at-large about healthy habits and behaviors, these nurses often recognize that entire communities are only as healthy as their most vulnerable citizens. They acknowledge the importance that everyone deserves access to healthcare to enhance their quality of life.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of the role that qualified public health nurses play in preventing the spread of contagious disease. Throughout the pandemic, public health nurses mobilized to understand the impact of the disease and educate the public on best-practices for staying healthy — such as self-isolating, proper mask usage, as well as interpreting ever-changing guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The recent pandemic has also highlighted the importance of public health nurses’ work in advocating for those in underserved communities to have greater access to information that affects their well-being. Public health nurses work to “level the playing field” and create more equal access to healthcare and health-related information for all, indiscriminate of socioeconomic status.

What is Community Health Nursing?

In examining community health vs. public health, community health nursing is actually a related subdivision under the umbrella of public health. While public health nursing can encompass a holistic view of the health of an entire population, community health nursing focuses on specific geographic locations, communities, and groups within those communities.

Community health nurses are often on the front lines of outreach within their regions, working to identify groups and individuals within those groups who may not have access to healthcare — be it preventive care or care for an existing disease or disorder. They apply their nursing skills and knowledge of available resources to people who may not be able to afford healthcare, are uninsured, lack transportation to seek out healthcare, or are physically unable to leave their home in order to seek treatment.

How to Become a Public Health Nurse

The first step to becoming a public health nurse is to earn either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited institution of higher learning. For those entering the field of public health nursing, it’s typically preferred that nurses earn their four-year bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), as opposed to an associate’s.

The next step is to sit for required exams to earn your RN licensing, specifically, the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

While pursuing your degree, it’s helpful to get hands-on experience working with the community and gaining an understanding of the workings of public health policy and events. Additional ways to earn more experience in the arena of public health nursing is to look to additional courses and programs that can provide a background in public and community health.

National University offers several community health programs, including a Bachelor of Science in Public Health, as well as a master’s offering in the subject. These programs may be complementary for someone who is currently an RN and wants to work in a more specialized path, or to explore relevant courses in these tracks while earning your RN.

Public Health Nursing Salaries

Public health nurses can earn an average annual salary ranging between $50,273 to $63,432. Entry-level public health nurses may expect closer to the low end of those figures to start.

Becoming a Public Health Nurse

Public health nurses straddle the line between being care providers, as well as tireless advocates for the health and well-being of entire populations. They work to stay educated on health trends, and share their knowledge of both health risks and healthier behaviors to help offset those risks to create healthier communities.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing can be your first step toward becoming a public health nurse. National University’s College of Law and Public Service can help you earn your RN in an accredited nursing degree program, as well as give you options for additional avenues for distinction in your field, including both a bachelor’s or master’s degree in public health. If you’re considering a career in public health, visit our Health & Human Services resources to hear more from students and faculty working in a variety of health-related careers.

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