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How to Become a Public Health Nurse

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A public health nurse holds a unique position in healthcare. Instead of reporting to a doctor’s office or a hospital, a public health nurse works for the community. Public health nurses focus on education, screening, and disease prevention to promote the health of all community members.


In a career involving a combination of nursing skills, community planning, and social outreach, public health nurses make a positive impact on the lives of patients in urban centers as well as rural, low-income, and other underserved communities.


For registered nurses (RNs) looking to advance their careers, understanding how to become a public health nurse and the opportunities available to new graduates is an important step in choosing the right specialization. From the role that public health nurses play, to the skills involved, to the benefits of pursuing higher education — such as an online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) — the following overview presents some of the typical paths toward this career goal, along with other useful information:

The Role of a Public Health Nurse

The roles of public health nurses are as varied as the health needs of the communities they serve. Nurses who are established in this field may serve as educators, public advocates, prevention specialists, or caregivers, to name a few roles. In community outreach efforts that often begin with children, nurses may work with schools, promoting healthful living and nutrition habits while addressing critical health threats such as obesity, diabetes, and smoking.


In addition to working with children, public health nurses may:


  • Deliver health services and education to individuals living in rural or low-income communities that often go without healthcare
  • Provide flu shots or other care at outpatient clinics for people who don’t have full health insurance benefits
  • Administer programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and serve at-risk mothers and young children
  • Work with disaster relief organizations to administer emergency services and bring comfort and care to communities in distress


At the heart of public health nurses’ work is the idea of improving the health and wellness of an entire society. They achieve this by bringing health education, services, and care to young, impoverished, and at-risk populations and communities that could otherwise slip through the cracks.

Public Health Nurse Skills

Public health is a discipline that focuses on the overall health of a specific population. When learning how to become a public health nurse, RNs must build on their foundational knowledge, accumulating crucial communication and management skills. Working with patients and community officials, public health nursing is multifaceted and can require a wide range of competencies, including the following:


  • The ability to work with people, network, and build relationships
  • Fluency in education and social issues
  • Effective communication skills to interact with diverse people in different settings
  • Adaptability to work in many settings, including hospitals, government agencies, academic institutions, and research centers
  • Analytical skills essential to collecting and organizing data from reliable sources
  • Public speaking, writing, and presentation skills to share critical health information with audiences in public venues and various media, including social media
  • Empathy and listening skills to understand people’s concerns and needs


By building strong relationships with the members of their community, public health nurses can steer programs in a positive direction and make a long-lasting positive impact on the lives of others. Higher education in nursing can be the key to building those leadership and communication skills, allowing public health nurses not only to reach their own professional goals but also to guide their patients and peers toward success.

Public Health Nurse Work Settings

After completing the educational requirements to become a public health nurse, there are many professional paths you can pursue. For example, many graduates find careers across a number of governmental agencies or nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations.. Employers in the field include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and state and local health organizations. Some public health nurses also work with organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, and the Peace Corps.


Work settings for public health nurses have grown to include nursing homes, housing developments, neighborhood centers, and church parishes, among many others. As public health nurses, graduates may serve as advocates and work with community, nonprofit, governmental, or nongovernmental organizations to secure funding for programs that help teen mothers, the elderly, the homeless, and other at-risk groups.

Steps to Become a Public Health Nurse

Finding the right career in nursing can be a challenging but fulfilling process. An important initial step is to understand the differences among various types of nurses as well as the particular path to achieving each specialty. The following are some of the key steps along the road to becoming a public health nurse:

Step 1: Meet Public Health Nurse Education Requirements

To begin a career as a public health nurse, a candidate must first become an RN, which entails passing the National Council of Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Some organizations may accept RNs with an associate degree for entry-level positions. Still, earning an undergraduate degree, such as an online Bachelor of Science in Nursing, is usually required for those seeking public health nurse positions.


For those who are already RNs, going back to school for nursing can seem daunting, but by earning an RN to BSN degree, graduates can gain a foundation in the essentials of public health nursing and prepare themselves for a more specialized career. These foundational courses cover a multitude of subjects, such as prevention, population health, collaboration in the healthcare profession, public health policy, caregiving, and research.

Step 2: Gain Nursing Experience

In preparing for a career as a public health nurse, it’s essential to gain hands-on experience while working toward a BSN degree. Students should consider volunteering with neighborhood associations, nursing homes, hospices, or health advocacy groups. The combination of a BSN degree and volunteer work will facilitate finding jobs in the nursing field. Before taking a position as a public health nurse, most candidates will need two or three years of experience working as an RN in a hospital, nursing home, or other medical institution.

Step 3: Connect with Public Health Organizations

While working toward a BSN degree and gaining experience as an RN, many valuable opportunities are available for graduates to build their public health nursing credentials with national and international organizations. Seeking out these opportunities is a big part of learning how to become a public health nurse. They include the following:


  • The American Red Cross, which offers internships to students and volunteer opportunities for students and graduates alike
  • The Peace Corps, in which a tour of service may confer preferred status for public health nurses seeking positions with government organizations
  • The World Health Organization, which estimates the world will need for 9 million additional nurses by 2030

Public Health Nurse Salary

The compensation website PayScale reports the approximate median annual salary for public health nurses was around $63,000 as of June 2022. Below is a breakdown of yearly compensation at the lower and higher ends of the range:


  • The lowest 10% of the range earn less than $47,000
  • The highest 10% earn more than $90,000


Salary ranges can vary widely depending on many factors, including location, certifications, degrees, experience, and responsibilities. Additionally, supervisory roles and advanced degrees may bring higher salaries, making the proper education a key factor in becoming a public health nurse.


Benefits packages for public health nurses are usually generous. Nurses employed by governmental agencies, such as HHS and the CDC, are eligible for substantial pension and retirement programs.

Public Health Nurse Job Growth

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts a bright employment outlook for the nursing profession overall, including a 9% increase in registered nursing jobs from 2020 to 2030. The BLS also projects a rise of 17% in employment of health educators and community health workers — a category that includes public health nurses — by 2030.


The nursing field is growing in part because the population is getting older, people are living longer, and older people generally need more care. Other factors that contribute to the boom in nursing jobs include an uptick in natural disasters, the opioid crisis, and rising numbers of nurses either reaching retirement age or pursuing other careers.


Creating a highly qualified nursing workforce requires education that advances clinical competency in nurses. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reports that more than 75% of employers prefer to hire nurses with bachelor’s degrees.

Exploring Public Health Nursing Career Options

The demand for public health nurses is increasing, making it an excellent option for those looking for a career in medicine. While becoming a public health nurse can be challenging and requires extensive training, upon graduating, RNs have the opportunity to take on an incredibly rewarding career.


For future nursing leaders, pursuing higher education such as an RN to BSN online program from Maryville University can be a key steppingstone in their career. A fully online program with six start dates to fit a nurse’s busy schedule and accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), the BSN program from Maryville University helps prepare existing registered nurses with the skills and knowledge to advance their careers. Explore a bright future in nursing with an education from Maryville University.


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