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How to Become a Public Health Nurse

By Lace Brunsden

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Did you know that the International Council of Nurses (ICN) anticipates the need for over 13 million nurses globally to bridge the gap in the nursing shortage by 2030? In the midst of this critical healthcare gap, the role of Public Health Nurses has never been more vital. If you’re passionate about making a difference in communities and promoting wellness on a large scale, this article will guide you on the rewarding journey of becoming a Public Health Nurse.

Career Summary

Public Health Nurse Salary

Public Health Nurse Salary

A public health nurse salary can vary a lot. The reason for this is largely due to how vague the title is, and the variety of different responsibilities you might encounter.

According to Glassdoor, the average public health nurse salary throughout the USA can be summarized as follows:

  • Entry Level: US$ 77,000
  • Median: US$ 96,000
  • Senior: US$ 120,000

Compared to the average salary across the USA of about US$ 59,428, this can be seen as relatively high.

What does a Public Health Nurse do?

As a Public Health Nurse, your mission is multifaceted – you’ll be at the forefront of preventing diseases, promoting wellness, and advocating for community health. From conducting health assessments to implementing educational programs, your role encompasses everything from individual care to shaping policies that positively impact the well-being of entire populations. It’s a dynamic blend of empathy, expertise, and community engagement that sets the stage for transformative healthcare practices.

Public Health Nurse Career Progression

  • Public Health Nurse Trainee: Begin your journey by gaining hands-on experience and mentorship, learning the essentials of public health nursing through shadowing and practical application.
  • Staff Public Health Nurse: Take on increased responsibilities in disease prevention, health education, and community outreach, actively contributing to the implementation of public health programs.
  • Public Health Nurse Supervisor: Oversee a team of nurses, guiding their efforts in the field and ensuring the efficiency of public health initiatives while contributing to strategic planning.
  • Public Health Program Manager: Lead the development, implementation, and evaluation of comprehensive public health programs, taking on a strategic role in shaping community health policies and practices.
Public Health Nurse Career Progression

Best Aspects of Working as a Public Health Nurse

  • Community Impact
  • Diverse Responsibilities
  • Professional Growth Opportunities
  • Holistic Health Approach
  • Collaborative Team Environment

Worst Aspects of Working as a Public Health Nurse

  • High Workload
  • Limited Resources
  • Emotional Strain
  • Bureaucratic Challenges
  • Potential for Burnout

Useful Skills to have as a Public Health Nurse

  • Communication Skills
  • Cultural Competence
  • Critical Thinking
  • Community Engagement
  • Problem-Solving Skills

Popular Public Health Nurse Specialties

  • Maternal and Child Health
  • Epidemiology
  • Infectious Disease Control
  • Environmental Health
  • Occupational Health

How to Become a Public Health Nurse

Public Health Nurse 5 Steps to Career

Step 1: Obtain a Nursing Degree (ADN or BSN)

Do I need a degree to become a Public Health Nurse?

Yes, to become a Public Health Nurse, you typically need to have a nursing degree. Most Public Health Nurse positions require at least an Associate’s Degree in Nursing – ADN or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing – BSN. Some Public Health Nurses may also pursue additional education in public health, such as a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) degree, to enhance their skills and career prospects.

Why is it important to get a degree in Nursing?

Obtaining a degree in nursing, such as an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), is crucial for several reasons beyond acquiring a Registered Nurse (RN) license:

  • Comprehensive Education: Nursing programs provide a comprehensive education covering medical knowledge, practical skills, and the theoretical foundations of nursing, preparing you for a diverse range of healthcare scenarios.
  • Clinical Experience: Nursing degrees include supervised clinical experiences that allow you to apply theoretical knowledge in real-world healthcare settings, gaining hands-on skills and confidence in patient care.
  • Professional Competence: A nursing degree ensures that you meet the educational requirements set by nursing boards, demonstrating your competence as a healthcare professional.
  • Career Opportunities: Many healthcare institutions prefer or require nurses to have a degree for employment, and having a BSN may open up additional career opportunities and advancement possibilities.
  • Preparation for Specializations: If you decide to specialize in a particular field of nursing, such as public health nursing, having a solid nursing foundation is essential before pursuing further education or certifications in the chosen specialization.
  • Ethical and Legal Understanding: Nursing education includes an understanding of ethical principles, legal considerations, and professional conduct, ensuring that nurses adhere to high standards of care and practice.

How long does it take to get a degree in Nursing?

The duration to obtain a degree in nursing can vary based on the type of program you choose and your educational path.

Here are the general timelines for different nursing degrees:

  • Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN): Typically takes about 2 to 3 years to complete. ADN programs are often offered by community colleges.
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): Usually takes 4 years to complete. BSN programs are offered by colleges and universities.
  • Accelerated BSN Programs: Designed for individuals with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. Can be completed in around 12 to 18 months.
  • Diploma Programs: Offered by some hospitals. Duration varies but is generally around 2 to 3 years.
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN): Requires a BSN for entry. Typically takes 1.5 to 2 years to complete.
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.): Completion times vary. DNP programs may take around 3 to 4 years, while Ph.D. programs may take longer.

Can I become a Public Health Nurse through online education?

Yes, it is possible to pursue education and training to become a Public Health Nurse through online programs. Many universities and institutions offer online nursing programs, including those with a focus on public health. 

However, there is also clinical experience to consider. Even in online programs, there may be clinical components that require hands-on experience. You’ll need to arrange and complete these clinical requirements in a local healthcare setting.

What are some web resources to learn skills to become a Public Health Nurse?

To acquire skills and knowledge relevant to becoming a Public Health Nurse, you can explore various web resources that offer educational content, courses, and information.

Here are some reputable web resources to enhance your skills in public health nursing:

  • CDC Learning Connection (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): Offers a wide range of free courses and training materials on public health topics.
  • APHN (Association of Public Health Nurses): Provides resources, webinars, and conferences focused on public health nursing.
  • Public Health Agency of Canada – Learning Resources: Offers various learning resources and tools for public health professionals.
  • OpenWHO (World Health Organization): Provides free online courses on a range of public health topics, including outbreaks and emergencies.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam for RN Licensure

As a nursing graduate in the United States, you’ll encounter the NCLEX-RN, a pivotal step in obtaining your registered nurse (RN) license. Administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), this computerized adaptive test assesses your competency and readiness for entry-level nursing practice. 

Prepare thoroughly, as success on the NCLEX-RN is essential for embarking on your career as a registered nurse, ensuring you have the knowledge and skills to provide safe and effective patient care. Remember to refer to the NCSBN and your state nursing board for the most up-to-date information and requirements.

Step 3: Gain Clinical Experience as a Registered Nurse

What are internship opportunities for a Public Health Nurse?

Internship opportunities for public health nurses can provide valuable hands-on experience and enhance their skills in various aspects of public health.

Here are some common internship opportunities for public health nurses:

  • Local Health Departments: Internships within local health departments allow public health nurses to engage in community-level initiatives, disease prevention programs, and health promotion activities.
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Nonprofit organizations working in public health often offer internships focused on specific health issues or populations. This may include organizations addressing maternal and child health, infectious diseases, or vulnerable populations.
  • Community Health Clinics: Interning at community health clinics provides exposure to primary care services, health education, and outreach efforts targeting underserved communities.
  • Research Institutions: Public health nurses interested in research can explore internships with research institutions or universities. They may contribute to studies related to epidemiology, health disparities, or healthcare interventions.
  • International Health Organizations: Some public health nurses may find internship opportunities with international health organizations, contributing to global health initiatives, disaster response, or health education programs in different countries.
  • School Health Programs: Interning in school health programs allows public health nurses to work with students, address health concerns, implement wellness programs, and participate in health education initiatives.
  • Corporate Wellness Programs: Private companies often have wellness programs, and public health nurses can intern in corporate settings to assist with employee health initiatives, preventive care, and wellness activities.
  • Public Health Advocacy Groups: Public health advocacy organizations may offer internships focused on policy advocacy, community organizing, and addressing public health issues at a broader systemic level.
  • Disaster Preparedness and Response Agencies: Internships in agencies focused on disaster preparedness and response provide hands-on experience in planning for and responding to public health emergencies.
  • Home Health Agencies: Interning in home health agencies allows public health nurses to work with individuals and families in their homes, providing community-based care and support.

What Skills will I learn as a Public Health Nurse?

As a public health nurse, you will acquire a diverse skill set, including:

  • Community Assessment: You’ll learn to conduct thorough community assessments to understand health needs, demographics, and available resources.
  • Health Education: Develop skills in designing and implementing effective health education programs to promote wellness and prevent diseases.
  • Epidemiology: Understand and apply principles of epidemiology to analyze and track health-related events within populations.
  • Health Promotion: Cultivate strategies to encourage healthy behaviors and lifestyles within the communities you serve.
  • Cultural Competence: Enhance cultural competence to provide inclusive and culturally sensitive healthcare, considering diverse backgrounds and beliefs.
  • Policy Advocacy: Learn to advocate for policies addressing public health issues and improving overall community health.
  • Collaborative Communication: Develop collaborative communication skills, working with interdisciplinary teams, community leaders, and organizations to achieve public health goals.
  • Program Planning and Evaluation: Gain expertise in planning, implementing, and evaluating public health programs to ensure their effectiveness.
  • Case Management: Acquire skills in providing individualized care and support, connecting individuals and families with appropriate resources.
  • Health Disparities Reduction: Identify and address health disparities, ensuring equitable access to healthcare for all.
  • Disaster Preparedness: Participate in planning and response efforts for public health emergencies and disasters.
  • Environmental Health: Address environmental factors impacting community health and safety.
  • Leadership and Management: Take on leadership roles in public health initiatives

Step 4:  Acquire a Public Health Nurse Certification or Relevant Training

You have several public health nurse certification options, offering opportunities to specialize and showcase your expertise in specific public health areas.

Here are some notable certifications you may consider:

  • Certified in Public Health (CPH): Offered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE), the CPH certification, though not exclusive to nursing, is relevant for public health nurses, covering various public health competencies.
  • Community Health Nursing Certification (RN-BC): Offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), this certification suits nurses, including public health nurses, working in community health settings.
  • Advanced Public Health Nursing-Board Certified (PHNA-BC): The ANCC also offers the PHNA-BC certification, recognizing advanced practice in public health nursing and suitable for nurses holding a master’s degree or higher.
  • HIV/AIDS Nursing Certification (AAHIVS): The American Academy of HIV Medicine provides the AAHIVS certification, relevant for nurses like you working in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and care.

Step 5: Pursue a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree in Public Health (optional but beneficial)

Pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in public health as you become a public health nurse is highly beneficial. It equips you with in-depth knowledge and specialized skills, enhancing your ability to make a lasting impact on community health. With an advanced degree, you’ll be better prepared to lead initiatives, contribute to policy development, and address complex public health challenges, ensuring you’re well-positioned to advance your career and contribute meaningfully to the well-being of diverse populations.

What’s the Career Outlook for Public Health Nurses?

There are no official predictions for the job outlook of public health nurses specifically. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 6% growth in employment for all registered nurses (RNs) from 2022 to 2032, which includes public health nurses. This is faster than the average for all other occupations and translates to roughly 193,100 new jobs for public health nurses each year over the next decade. Additionally, with an increased focus on prevention and public health, the demand for public health nursing will remain strong. 

Public Health Nurse Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Public Health Nurse?

  • Community Health Nurse: Work within your community to assess health needs, plan and implement health programs, and provide direct care.
  • Public Health Educator: Focus on health education and promotion, designing and implementing programs to improve your community’s health literacy.
  • Infection Control Nurse: Work to prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases within your community and healthcare settings.
  • Occupational Health Nurse: Focus on promoting and maintaining the health and safety of workers in your industry.
  • School Nurse: Provide healthcare services to students in your educational setting, addressing health needs and promoting wellness.
  • Correctional Health Nurse: Work in correctional facilities to provide healthcare services to inmates and address public health concerns in these settings.
  • Public Health Researcher: Engage in research projects to study and address public health issues, contributing to evidence-based practices.
  • Epidemiology Nurse: Collaborate with epidemiologists to investigate the spread of diseases, track outbreaks, and implement control measures.
  • Public Health Consultant: Offer your expertise to organizations, government agencies, or communities on public health strategies, policies, and interventions.
  • Disaster Response Nurse: Assist in planning and responding to public health emergencies, providing healthcare services during disasters.
  • Telehealth Nurse: Utilize technology to provide healthcare services remotely, contributing to accessible and convenient healthcare delivery.
  • Global Health Nurse: Work on international health initiatives, addressing global health challenges and promoting health equity worldwide.
  • Policy Advocate/Analyst: Advocate for public health policies, analyze their impact, and contribute to the development of health-related legislation.
  • Home Health Nurse: Provide healthcare services to individuals and families in their homes, focusing on preventive care and health education.

What Type of Organizations Hire a Public Health Nurse?

As a public health nurse, various types of companies and organizations may seek your expertise.

You could find opportunities in:

  • Local Health Departments: Work for your local government’s health department, addressing community health needs and implementing public health programs.
  • Hospitals and Healthcare Institutions: Join hospitals and healthcare facilities to contribute to community health initiatives, preventive care, and patient education.
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Explore roles with nonprofit organizations dedicated to public health causes, such as those focused on disease prevention, health education, or vulnerable populations.
  • Community Health Clinics: Contribute to community health by working in clinics that provide primary care services and health promotion.
  • Educational Institutions: Join universities or colleges to teach and conduct research in public health, shaping the next generation of healthcare professionals.
  • Corporate Wellness Programs: Work with companies offering wellness programs, providing health services, and promoting employee well-being.
  • Government Agencies: Explore opportunities with government agencies at the local, state, or federal levels, contributing to public health policy and initiatives.
  • International Health Organizations: Engage in global health efforts by working with international organizations addressing health disparities and promoting global well-being.
  • Research Institutions: Join research institutions conducting studies on public health issues, and contributing to evidence-based practices.
  • Pharmaceutical Companies: Contribute to healthcare initiatives within pharmaceutical companies, focusing on areas such as disease prevention or health education.
  • Insurance Companies: Work with insurance providers to assess and promote the health and well-being of policyholders through preventive care and education.
  • Environmental Health Organizations: Address environmental health concerns by working with organizations focused on promoting a healthy and safe environment.
  • Correctional Facilities: Work in correctional settings, addressing healthcare needs and promoting public health among incarcerated populations.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Public Health Nurse?

As a public health nurse, your work-life balance can vary based on factors such as your role, employer, and specific job responsibilities. While the field may come with its challenges, many public health nurses appreciate the flexibility to create a balanced schedule. 

Depending on your position, you may have regular working hours, and the nature of public health nursing often allows you to avoid long shifts or on-call responsibilities common in other nursing specialties. However, it’s essential to consider that public health emergencies or certain projects may require extra time and dedication. Striking a balance will depend on your ability to manage workload, set boundaries, and communicate effectively with your team.

Should I Become a Public Health Nurse?

As you consider the dynamic and rewarding field of public health nursing, the question arises: Should you become a public health nurse? If you are drawn to making a difference at the community level, promoting wellness, and addressing health disparities, the answer is a resounding yes. 

Becoming a public health nurse offers the opportunity to blend your nursing skills with a broader focus on preventive care, education, and community health initiatives. Your role becomes pivotal in shaping healthier communities and contributing to the well-being of diverse populations. Embrace the chance to be a catalyst for positive change, and as a public health nurse, you’ll find not just a career but a fulfilling mission to improve lives and foster lasting health outcomes.

But, it is important to consider all the factors. It is not for everyone, and the demands of the public health nursing profession can be too much for some people. Carefully weigh all the benefits and issues before making your decision.

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Lace Brunsden

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