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Public Health Nurse Career

How to Become a Public Health Nurse

Public health nurses (PHNs) play a critical role in healthcare because their work is focused on entire populations instead of one patient at a time. Rather than waiting for patients to come to the hospital with an illness, PHNs actually go into communities to help people improve their health and prevent disease. 

During infectious disease emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, PHNs are seen as warriors on the front line, putting their own lives at risk to help the communities they serve receive safe and effective care. If you’re interested in becoming a public health nurse, several online programs are available to help you earn a degree in this in-demand, multifaceted, ever-meaningful career field.

Public health nurse

What Is a Public Health Nurse?

Also known as community health nursing, public health nursing focuses on the wellness of the community as a whole. PHNs obtain knowledge about entire populations through research and combine it with their clinical understanding of health and illness to promote and protect these populations. While PHNs typically don’t provide bedside care to patients, they do have to receive training to be registered nurses and their work ultimately impacts the health outcomes of patients.

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

By working with entire communities, public health nurses can educate people about health issues, improve community health and safety, and increase access to care. For this unique focus in the nursing profession, it’s all about setting local priorities for health-related interventions to provide the greatest benefit to the highest number of people possible. PHNs may also provide direct services, including preventive care, screening services, and health education to those who don’t have access to care.

The following responsibilities of a PHN further emphasize just how vital this role is to our healthcare system. Public health nurses may do any of the tasks below:

  • Design and execute health education campaigns
  • Facilitate disease prevention through immunizations and screenings
  • Provide direct healthcare services and education to vulnerable and at-risk populations
  • Identify health risk factors unique to specific communities
  • Inform the public about locally available programs and services to improve access to care
  • Advocate with local, state, and federal authorities to improve access to health services for underserved communities

How do I Become a Public Health Nurse?

The first required step in your educational journey to becoming a PHN is to become licensed as an RN. You are required to pass a national licensing exam called the NCLEX-RN before you can practice as a nurse. A bachelor’s degree in nursing can prepare you for this.

Certain public health nursing jobs, particularly in supervisory roles, require a graduate degree as well. So you may also want to consider enrolling in a master’s in nursing program to give yourself a competitive edge.

While pursuing your degree, look for opportunities to work in or seek additional training in public health, public policy, health administration, and other related subjects. Volunteering with a home health provider or hospice is another way to gain valuable work experience. 

What Degrees are Best for a Public Health Nurse?

Nursing (Prelicensure) – B.S.

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you to be an RN...

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you...

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you to be an RN and a baccalaureate-prepared nurse:

  • Locations: offered in FL, IN, TX, MO, and UT only.
  • Tuition and fees: $6,575 per 6-month term.

WGU offers the prelicensure program in areas where we have partnerships with healthcare employers to provide practice sites and clinical coaches to help teach you and inspire you on your path to becoming a nurse.

If you don't live in one of our prelicensure states or don't qualify to apply, consider getting our Bachelor's Degree in Health Services Coordination instead. This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry, while also working directly with patients who need help.

Nursing – Leadership and Management (RN-to-MSN) – M.S.

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a substantial leap toward becoming a nurse leader.

  • Time: 75% of RN-to-MSN grads finish within 42 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,795 per 6-month term during undergraduate portion, $4,385 per 6-month term during graduate portion, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Some careers and jobs this degree will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
  • Chief Nursing Officer
  • Quality Director
  • Clinical Nurse Leader
  • Project Manager

If you're driven to lead, this online nursing degree will provide you everything needed to make that career a reality.

Compare degrees
This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

Compare Similar Degrees

Nursing (RN-to-BSN Online) – B.S.

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking...

An online BSN degree program for registered...

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking the added theoretical depth, employability, and respect that a bachelor's degree brings:

  • Time: 66% of graduates finish within 18 months.
  • Tuition and Fees: $3,795 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.
  • Transfers: On average, students transfer 81 credits.

With over 35,000 BSN alumni, this is one of WGU's most popular online degree programs. View our RN to BSN degree guide.

If you don't currently have an RN and don't qualify for your nursing prelicensure program, consider getting our Bachelor's Degree in Health Services Coordination instead. This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry in a unique way.

Nursing – Leadership and Management (BSN-to-MSN) – M.S.

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for greater responsibility:

  • Time: 82% of grads finish within 24 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,385 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Sample careers and jobs this degree program will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
  • Chief Nursing Officer
  • Quality Director
  • Clinical Nurse Leader
  • Project Manager

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of medical and health services managers to grow 17% by 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Compare degrees

This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

Compare Similar Degrees

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Where Does a Public Health Nurse Focus?

A young nurse works among the community to dispel medical ignorance.

Nursing in public health is defined by several key facets that make the field particularly more exciting because nurses can choose to focus their work on a specific area of interest. Public health nurses can do a lot. Here’s a look at what they do in different focus areas. 

Community health. focuses on the physical and mental well-being of people in a specific geographic region. Nurses whose focus is community health are engaged in the promotion of healthy behaviors and environments, prevention of illness and injury, protection against disease and other emerging health threats, eliminating health inequities, and advocating for social and environmental justice. There may be an entire government or private agency that is focused on public health nursing for the community.

Nursing in public health is defined by several key facets that make the field particularly more exciting because nurses can choose to focus their work on a specific area of interest. Public health nurses can do a lot. Here’s a look at what they do in different focus areas. 

Community health. focuses on the physical and mental well-being of people in a specific geographic region. Nurses whose focus is community health are engaged in the promotion of healthy behaviors and environments, prevention of illness and injury, protection against disease and other emerging health threats, eliminating health inequities, and advocating for social and environmental justice. There may be an entire government or private agency that is focused on public health nursing for the community.

Education. Drawing on their training as RNs, public health nurses give people reliable, useful information about how to protect their health. Their goal is to make health information easy to understand so that people can take greater control over their well-being. They may work for an agency or hospital, going out to give presentations at schools, senior centers, health fairs, and community events, promoting everything from proper nutrition and effective safety practices, to the prevention of common diseases and how to care for family members who are ill or disabled. 

Environmental health. This focuses on physical surroundings and their impact on people’s health. The world will need more trained public health professionals, including PHNs, to meet upcoming demands as environmental factors linked to climate change (drought, natural disasters, vector-borne illnesses) continue to have a profound impact on public health. Climate shifts will increasingly impact the health of people around the world, hence PHNs need continued core training to stay prepared for this reality so that increased health needs can be met. 

Epidemiology. PHNs who specialize as epidemiologists identify people or populations at high risk, track the progress of diseases, identify areas of healthcare need, and manage programs and evaluate their impact. As with most PHNs, they usually don’t provide direct patient care but can be a valuable resource to patients because planning educational programs is a big part of their role. 

Global health. In many locations throughout the world, PHNs make invaluable contributions to public health in a wide range of service situations, such as working as a nurse-midwife in remote areas of rural Africa where there are likely obstacles to having a local doctor, delivering primary care services to remote or poverty-stricken areas, and treating patients who have illnesses and diseases that rarely occur in the U.S., such as cholera. 

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Health policy. With the goal of improving the overall well-being of society, public health nurses working in the policy arena combine a strong background of hands-on expertise and public policy knowledge to aid and act as policymakers within our government and healthcare systems. They help inform legislation, oversee regulations, or advocate for policies that stand to benefit consumers, patients, and the profession.

A group of students watch a doctor or nurse demonstrating CPR chest compressions on a dummy.

What Skills Does a Public Health Nurse Need?

During the course of your studies and volunteering, keep in mind the broad range of skills and qualities required to become a successful PHN. They include the following:

  • Excellent communication, analytical, negotiating, and problem-solving skills
  • Good interpersonal skills so that you can develop and sustain relationships
  • Strong project management experience
  • The ability to respond to sudden, unexpected demands
  • Enthusiasm and genuine interest in public health

To succeed as a PHN, you must also be able to work well with large groups, be an attentive listener, and be sensitive to cultural differences. PHNs also have to come up with creative workarounds when resources are scarce while at the same time ensuring they are focusing their efforts where they will be the most beneficial. 

Public health nurses are passionate individuals, hardworking, and highly dedicated to improving community health and access to care. If this resonates with you, WGU can provide the skills, knowledge, and training you’ll need to succeed in a public healthcare role that promises to be gratifying.

How Much Does a Public Health Nurse Make?

$75,000

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the salary for a public health nurse varies depending on their specialization, job location, and requirements. For instance, an epidemiologist nurse earns an annual average salary of about $74,000 while a registered nurse earns $75,000. The job outlook for both of these nursing professions is promising.

What Is the Projected Job Growth?

9%

The job market for registered nurses is expected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030. As in all areas of nursing, there’s increasing demand for public health nurses, particularly in low-income and underserved communities, and for diversity because PHNs often work with diverse populations. Bilingual nurses, specifically those fluent in both Spanish and English, are especially needed.

Where Do School Nurses Work?

Varies

Public health nurses can work for a number of different organizations including community health centers, government agencies, nonprofit groups, outpatient clinics, and school systems.

Interested in Becoming a Public Health Nurse?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this meaningful career.

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