How to Become a Public Health Nurse

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A smiling public health nurse sits at a desk.

Public health nurses play an important role in their communities, providing health care 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, students must understand the responsibilities and background needed to build a successful career in this rewarding field. RNs interested in pursuing this career path should start by developing the necessary advanced knowledge and skills. An advanced degree such as an online Master of Public Health in Public Health Practice can prepare graduates with the skills to appreciate the sociological, economic, and environmental factors that impact individual and community health.

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

For students interested in learning more about what a public health nurse does, the Association of Public Health Nurses  defines the role 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 health care access and prevent the spread of disease within communities.

Public Health Nurse Work Environments

Public health nurses may work in various environments, such as community clinics, schools and health departments. Work schedules for public health RNs vary widely based on the organization they work for. Professionals working for health departments are likely to work standard business hours, Monday through Friday, while public health nurses employed in community health care clinics may need to work weekends and holidays. Additionally, public health RNs employed by school districts often have extended periods of time off during holiday periods and semester breaks.

Public Health Nurse Responsibilities

Professionals in this career also monitor factors that influence communal health, such as lifestyle, environmental and cultural influences. They then use that information to propose strategies targeted to individuals and communities who are particularly vulnerable to health risks. For example, public health nurses may build programs to address various public health issues, such as environmental lead poisoning, in addition to delivering immunizations, educating about infection control or promoting school health. In some instances, they may also visit people in their homes to conduct screenings, provide treatment and share educational resources.

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:

  • Assessing, recording and evaluating health care and illness trends in the community
  • 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
  • Developing and implementing public health education and outreach programs
  • Educating the public about prevention methods for communicable and chronic diseases

Public Health Nurse Job Outlook

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of registered nurses, including public health nurses, is projected to grow 9% between 2020 and 2030. This job growth is about the same as is projected for all occupations, with approximately 195,500 openings for RNs expected each year. Job openings will be driven by a variety of factors, including the need to replace retiring baby boomer nurses and those RNs who transfer to other occupations. Demand for public health nurses will also be driven by the aging population, as older individuals tend to have more chronic medical problems and need more care. This will be especially true within communities of lower socioeconomic standing, where some may not have access to private health care, and thus must turn to community health care clinics for outpatient services such as health care screenings and immunizations.

Public Health Nurse Requirements

Aspiring 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 to be community advocates with clinical expertise.

Beyond educational requirements, the requirements to become a public health nurse include becoming a licensed registered nurse. Nurses with master’s degrees can also pursue additional credentials, 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 in Public Health Practice program is designed to help students gain these skills, along with the knowledge and educational background 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, factors such as education level, experience and location can influence salaries.

According to January 2022 data from the compensation website PayScale, public health nurses earned a median annual salary of about $63,000, with earners in the top 10th percentile reporting salaries of more than $94,000. Salary ranges vary widely based on several factors, such as the type of organization an individual works for. For example, the BLS reports that as of May 2020, RNs, including public health nurses, working for governmental institutions reported an annual median wage of $85,490, where individuals working for state, local and private educational services earned a median annual wage of $64,630.

PayScale also reports that public health RNs 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 in Public Health Practice 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 in Public Health Practice  can help advance your career.

Recommended Reading:

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses