While most nurses care for one patient at a time, public health nurses care for entire populations. By working with whole communities, public health nurses are able to educate people about health issues, improve community health and safety and increase access to care.
Public health nurses believe a person’s health is affected by many factors, including genetic makeup, lifestyle and environment. Instead of waiting for patients to come to the hospital with an illness, they go into communities to try and help people improve their health and prevent disease.
For people who don’t have access to care, public health nurses may also provide direct health care services, including preventive care, screening services and health education.
Public health nurses also:
- Monitor health trends and identify health risk factors unique to specific communities
- Set local priorities for health-related interventions to provide the greatest benefit to the most people
- Advocate with local, state and federal authorities to improve access to health services for underserved communities
- Design and implement health education campaigns and disease prevention activities, such as immunizations and screenings
- Tell people about locally available health care programs and services to improve access to care
- Educate and provide direct health care services to vulnerable and at-risk populations
Health education is a primary focus of public health nurses. Drawing on their training as registered nurses, public health nurses give people reliable, useful information about how to protect their health.
In presentations at schools, community groups, senior centers and other local groups, public health nurses explain proper nutrition, demonstrate effective safety practices, promote early detection of common diseases, tell people how to care for disabled or ill family members and inform people about other important health issues. Their goal is to make health information easy to understand, so people can take greater control over their well being.
In low-income and rural communities, public health nurses also provide critical health care services. They immunize schoolchildren, provide pre-natal and well-baby care and teach the elderly how to stay safe and healthy at home. They also must be able to recognize and respond to potential health crises.
Public health nurses often work for government agencies, nonprofit groups, community health centers and other organizations that aim to improve health at the community level. They may work alone or on multidisciplinary teams, and they often supervise other health care and lay personnel. In addition to working with communities, they work behind the scenes planning activities, managing budgets and evaluating the effectiveness of public health programs.
They may travel locally or across significant distances to meet with community groups and bring health care services into underserved communities.
Public health nurses are highly dedicated individuals who work very hard to improve community health and access to care. They must be able to work well with large groups, listen attentively and be sensitive to cultural differences. They have to manage often scarce resources creatively and focus their efforts where they will do the most good. Public health nurses also need to understand their own limits so they do not become burnt out.
Salary Range and Outlook
As in all areas of nursing, there is increasing demand for public health nurses, particularly in medically underserved and low-income communities. Many government agencies are also recognizing the benefits of preventive and health education services provided by public health nurses to reduce overall health care costs.
The profession encourages diversity in its ranks because public health nurses often work with diverse populations. Bilingual nurses, particularly those fluent in both Spanish and English, are desperately needed.
The average salary for a public health nurse is $51,000. There are better paying nursing jobs, but most public health nurses find their reward in the work rather than the pay. Salaries also vary greatly depending on job location and requirements.
If you think you might be interested in public health nursing, get practice by working with a local neighborhood association or volunteering with a community group, home health provider or hospice. Working with health advocacy groups is another way to learn about public health issues.
To become a public health nurse, you must first train as a registered nurse (RN). You’ll likely need to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing at an accredited four-year college, although some communities will employ public health nurses with associate’s degrees.
While in college, look for opportunities to work in community settings and to assist with public health activities. Seek additional training in public health, public policy, health administration and related subjects.
After graduation, you must pass a national licensing exam called the NCLEX-RN before you can practice as a nurse. Graduate education may be required for certain public health nursing jobs, particularly in supervisory roles.