What Is a Public Health Nurse?

Nurse in scrubs with family

While all nurses work in healthcare in some way, a public health nurse focuses on communities and populations of people. The role of a public health nurse is to promote health in communities and to prevent diseases and other conditions that negatively impact health in the community.

History of Public Health Nursing

Throughout much of history, the concept of healthcare has centered around treating those who are already sick with illnesses or injuries. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that scientific understanding started to encompass the idea of preventing illness or injury. This led to innovations in sanitation and greater understanding of how diseases spread, which resulted in the idea of district nursing.

District nursing, which would later evolve into public health nursing, began with William Rathbone, a British merchant and philanthropist. Rathbone employed a woman named Mary Robinson to nurse his wife; when she died in 1859, Rathbone continued to employ Robinson. According to Rathbone, “It occurred to me to engage Mrs. Robinson, her nurse, to go into one of the poorest districts of Liverpool and try, in nursing the poor, to relieve suffering and to teach them the rules of health and comfort.”

On the advice of Florence Nightingale, Rathbone later established a residential training school for nurses attached to the Royal Infirmary in Liverpool, and district nursing was born. The profession of public health nursing continues to evolve to this day. This is, in part, because of advances in science and medicine, but also because a public health nurse’s duty is not simply to care for the sick in the most expedient way possible, but to do so in a way that creates a lasting impact. To this end, public health nurses must work with community organizations and act as educators for communities, to teach individuals within at-risk communities to make healthy choices.

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

Public health within a community is the result of a number of factors. By addressing health from an ecological perspective, a public health nurse examines the social, cultural, environmental, and other factors that can impact health. For example, a public health nurse in a poor community might take steps to address income inequality or to provide low-cost healthcare solutions, because low income can have a significant impact on public health.

The communities that public health nurses often work with are those with a higher risk of public health issues. Low-income communities, pregnant women and new mothers, public school students, and the elderly are all examples of communities that public health nurses might work with.

Public health nurses achieve their goals through a number of different methods. While direct treatment of symptoms may be necessary in this line of work, more often a public health nurse collaborates with the community and organizations within the community to provide systemic supports. This may involve education or policy development, with an eye toward creating real change within the population that promotes an improvement in overall public health.

Public health nurses face many challenges, including resistance from political leadership, reductions in public health funding, and attacks on legislation that promotes public health, such as the Affordable Care Act. These challenges, however, provide opportunities for strong leadership within the field of public health.

Public Health Nurse Salary

Employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 16 percent by 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median annual salary for public health nurses is about $56,000, according to PayScale. Like all nurses, public health nurses must obtain specialized education and licensing in order to perform their job duties. In most cases, this takes the form of a bachelor’s degree or associate degree in nursing, or a diploma from an approved nursing program; however, chances of employment increase greatly with a B.S. in Nursing. All states require a nurse to obtain licensure by passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) before practicing. Nurses may also be required to pass a Public Health or Community Health Nursing examination, though this requirement varies from state to state.

A nurse who obtains a master’s degree or other graduate degree may become qualified for a leadership position. A leadership role often requires mastery over a particular subfield of public health nursing, such as health policy and advocacy, population assessment, or prevention strategies. A nurse interested in further professional development can pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. A public health nurse can also pursue a PhD to transition into a research-focused role.

Learn to Be a Public Health Nurse

Education is the first step toward becoming a public health nurse. An online RN to BSN degree from Rivier University can provide the foundational knowledge you need to become a public health nurse. Learn important skills in a flexible, dynamic online environment, on a schedule that works for you.