How to Become a Public Health Nurse: Pursuing an Important Role in Care

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A smiling public health nurse working at her desk.

Public health nurses play an important role in their communities, providing healthcare services and education to vulnerable populations and people in need. These nurse leaders combine clinical training with strategic communication skills to help families, individuals and entire communities access the resources they need to live healthier lives.

In learning how to become a public health nurse, understanding the responsibilities and background needed to build a successful career in this rewarding field is important.

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

According to the Association of Public Health Nurses, public health nursing is defined as “the practice of promoting and protecting the health of populations using knowledge from nursing, social and public health sciences.” To that end, public health nurses create programs and policies to improve healthcare access and prevent the spread of disease within communities.

Public health nurses may work in various environments, such as community clinics, schools and health departments. They may also visit people at home to conduct screenings, provide treatment, and share educational resources.

Public health nurses monitor factors that may influence communal health, such as lifestyle, environmental and cultural influences, and then use that information to propose helpful strategies targeted at individuals and communities who are particularly vulnerable to health risks. For example, public health nurses may build programs to address environmental lead poisoning, deliver immunizations, educate about infection control or promote school health.

To keep populations informed about important health issues, public health nurses use educational strategies, such as delivering presentations to spread awareness, distributing fact sheets, and hosting workshops or information sessions to gather feedback.

Additional public health nurse responsibilities include the following:

  • Building partnerships with other community programs to deliver education and care
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of past and current health services
  • Referring people in need to health facilities
  • Working with governmental organizations to secure funding and support for necessary health services

The Path to Becoming a Public Health Nurse

Future public health nurses must complete certain educational requirements to enter the field. They should earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited university. They should also gain experience providing care in community health settings such as with a clinic, school, hospital or nonprofit organization. Those interested in building an advanced career should consider a master’s degree in public health, where they can gain the leadership skills they need to be community advocates with clinical expertise.

Beyond educational requirements, public health nurses must be licensed as registered nurses. Nurses with master’s degrees can also pursue additional certifications, such as a certification in public health (CPH).

Studying for these degree programs and certifications can provide public health nurses with the skills they need for success, including the following:

  • Analytical skills. Public health nurses must be able to assess qualitative and quantitative data to better understand community needs.
  • Communication skills. Public health nurses work directly with families and individuals to share critical information and connect them with health resources.
  • Project management skills. Public health nurses devise programs and policies to improve care for different populations, often collaborating with other community partners and organizations.
  • Problem-solving skills. Public health nurses should be prepared to make difficult decisions using sensitive information to build and propose the best solutions for those at high-risk.
  • Leadership skills. Public health nurses should be seen as trustworthy consultants, mentors and advocates for the populations and community partners with whom they work.

University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Public Health program can help individuals gain these skills, along with the knowledge and educational background needed to excel in a public health nurse role. Students take courses in subjects such as public health policy, health informatics, epidemiology, and social and behavioral health, preparing them to enter various public health settings.

Public Health Nurse Salary

Public health nurses have the opportunity to work in a rewarding field while earning competitive salaries. While salary ranges for public health professionals differ from other clinical positions, different factors — education level, experience, location — can influence salaries.

According to September 2020 data from PayScale, public health nurses earn a median annual salary of about $59,600.

PayScale reports that public health nurses at the U.S. Department of Public Health reported the highest salaries, and those with more experience can earn salaries 13% higher than those in the beginning or middle of their careers. Skills in areas such as pediatrics, health education and case management can also contribute to higher salaries for public health nurses.

Build an Advanced Career in Public Health Nursing

University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Public Health program is designed to prepare students for rewarding careers in their chosen field. Guided by a comprehensive curriculum, students develop research-based knowledge of public health, policy, and practice. Whether you’re interested in working with a government entity, a nonprofit organization or an educational institution, you’ll have the skills to make an impact in your community.

Learning more about how the University’s online Master of Public Health degree can help you reach your career goals.


Recommended Readings

Public Health Policy: Problems and Solutions

Understanding Public Health Jobs

What Can You Learn from a Public Health Internship?



American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Certification for Public Health Nursing

American Nurses Association, Public Health Nursing

American Public Health Association, Public Health Nursing

Association of Public Health Nurses, What Is a PHN?

PayScale, Average Public Health Nurse Hourly Pay

Quad Council Coalition, Community/Public Health Nursing (C/PHN) Competencies