What Is Public Health Nursing?

What is public health nursing?

Social determinants of health, such as a client’s socioeconomic status, have been shown to negatively affect the health of individuals and families. Examples of social determinants include poverty, limited access to healthcare, limited education, and place of residence. Public health nursing addresses social determinants of health and focuses  on the importance of nurses in treating and educating individuals or groups about potential health risks.

The Role of Public Health Nursing

A public health nurse’s role is to promote wellness and prevent illness. This nursing specialty focuses on teaching at-risk individuals and groups how to live healthy lifestyles and prevent disease by avoiding hazardous behavior or exposure. The job duties for public health nurses include the following:

  • Electronically recording medical data.
  • Educating patients.
  • Evaluating the health of patients and recommending treatment plans.
  • Administering care and treatments.
  • Providing referrals.
  • Informing patients about health support services.
  • Following up with patients.

Often, nursing in public health is similar to community health nursing; however there is a difference. While both disciplines serve the same demographics, their purposes are distinct. Public health nurses provide healthcare to people and communities who are unable to seek assistance. Community health nursing involves advocacy and policy development to eliminate healthcare disparities. Both types of nursing use theory and evidence-based practice.

The Job of a Public Health Nurse

A public health nurse must be an RN with an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. These nurses work with individuals or communities to administer medical care and increase awareness of disease prevention. Nurses assess the cultural, environmental, genetic and social components of a person’s profile and combine clinical knowledge and nursing skills to determine the best course of action. Typically, nurses interact with vulnerable members of society, such as the homeless, senior citizens, shut-ins and teen mothers.

Public health nurses may collaborate with interprofessional teams and community leaders. Through these partnerships, they educate the public about proper nutrition, healthy weight and the benefits of exercise. In addition, they train people to spot the early signs of health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart and kidney disease, so they can seek treatment before a condition becomes chronic.

Through targeted interventions and presentations at health fairs, schools, community centers, churches and healthcare facilities, nurses share their medical knowledge to prevent illness and disability. Public health nurses also ensure compliance with local and state requirements when coordinating healthcare services. The priorities of public health nurses include the following:

  • Promoting health.
  • Reducing health risk.
  • Preventing diseases.

Public Health Nurses’ Working Environments

Public health nurses practice in many settings. Most public health nurses work in federal health agencies or in departments of health at the municipal, county or state levels. They also work in correctional institutions, occupational health facilities, businesses, health clinics and schools. Other places where you will find public health nurses include the following:

  • U.S. Military.
  • Veteran’s Affairs Offices.
  • Hospitals.
  • Nonprofit health and community service organizations.
  • Home health agencies.

Educating Public Health Nurses

To enter the field of public health nursing, you will need to complete a nursing education program to earn either an ASN or BSN. Afterward, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to become an RN. After receiving licensure, you can search for employment as a public health nurse.

Most employers prefer hiring public health nurses with a BSN. A baccalaureate education prepares nurses to work in public health by providing classes that cover clinical prevention, population health, healthcare policy and interprofessional collaboration.

If you wish to continue your education, you can pursue a master’s degree to work as an advanced public health nurse (APHN). With an MSN, you are qualified for leadership positions. The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is also an option. This degree allows you to assume executive leadership roles, participate in systems development and translate evidence-based research into nursing practice. In a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program, you will learn how to apply scientific knowledge relevant to public health nursing as well as how to formulate evidence for applied practice.

Job Statistics for Public Health Nurses

According to Payscale.com, the average median income for public health nurses was $56,590, as of September 2017. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) predicts a 16 percent increase in jobs for RNs between 2014 and 2024. The BLS does not have a separate category for public health nurses.

Considering the large numbers of people who still live in poverty, public health nursing is vital. The main challenge is keeping up with evolving health crises. A well-educated nursing workforce can assist the sick, combat social injustices in healthcare, and lend a voice to those who cannot help themselves.

Learn more about the UNM online RN to BSN program.


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Public Health Nurse Salary. (2016, January 12). http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Public_Health_Nurse/Salary

Registered Nurses Job Outlook. (2015, December 17). http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-6

Role of Public Health Nurses. (n.d.). http://health.mo.gov/living/lpha/phnursing/phnroles.php

The Definition And Practice Of Public Health Nursing. (2013, November 11). https://www.apha.org/~/media/files/pdf/membergroups/phn/nursingdefinition.ashx

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