Public Health Nurse: Career, Education & Salary
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A public health nurse is a medical professional who works within the community to improve the overall health of its members. They focus on population health, which involves identifying health trends within specific communities and developing intervention plans to address these issues.
Public health nurses provide clinical education about disease prevention, manage disease outbreaks, and set up vaccination clinics. They also work with local authorities and organizations to develop public health policies and strategies.
Public health nurses have been around for over a century, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA). Before WWI, the APHA established Public Health Nurses as a regular section of the organization in 1923. These days, the work of public health nurses focuses on being proactive and responsive to the healthcare needs of vulnerable populations.
Work environments for public health nurses vary widely. They often serve in specific areas, such as low-income communities or those lacking access to healthcare. They may provide direct care services, conduct health screenings, and connect individuals with healthcare resources. In this way, public health nursing is crucial in ensuring healthcare is accessible and equitable for all community members.
The first step to becoming a public health nurse is obtaining a nursing degree and becoming a registered nurse (RN). This can be an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). However, many employers prefer or require having a BSN and certification, requirements which are detailed below. While only sometimes required, obtaining certification as a Certified Public Health (CPH) or a public health certification can make you more competitive in the job market. Some states may also require specific public health certifications.
Discover how the public health nurse profession contributes to community health and wellness—the perfect niche specialization for aspiring nurses or those considering a career shift in nursing. Read on to learn how to become a public health nurse, including a step-by-step guide, degree requirements, salary outlook, and professional certification.
How to Become a Public Health Nurse
There are several pathways to becoming a public health nurse, but a typical path includes a comprehensive guide to several degrees and certifications many employers seek.
Step 1: Graduate from High School or Earn a GED (Four Years)
It is crucial to obtain a high school diploma or GED to pursue a career as a registered nurse (RN).
Step 2: Complete a Nursing Degree (One to Four Years)
Public health nursing degree requirements vary by position and employer. At a minimum, public health nurses must have an associate’s degree in nursing or higher.
Here is a wide variety of nursing degree options for public health nurses.
Step 2A: Earn an ADN Degree (Two Years)
Earning an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) is a critical step toward beginning a career in nursing. It typically takes two years to complete, providing foundational knowledge and practical skills in patient care and preparing graduates for the NCLEX-RN examination and entry-level nursing positions.
Step 2B: Earn a BSN Degree (Recommended, One to Four Years)
A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree offers more comprehensive training in nursing and often includes courses specific to public health, making it highly relevant for those aspiring to become public health nurses. The BSN program not only equips students with broader clinical experience but also provides a deeper understanding of issues such as community and public health, healthcare management, and nursing research, all of which are critical in public health nursing.
Here are three common pathways to earning a BSN:
Accelerated BSN Programs: This is a one-year-or-more option for completing a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, specifically designed for individuals who already hold bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing fields.
- Sample program: Northeastern University – Bouvé College of Health Sciences
- Duration: 16 months
RN-to-BSN Programs: These are two-year programs designed to enable licensed RNs with two-year associate’s degrees in nursing (ADN) to complete their Bachelor’s degree in Nursing.
- Sample program: Western Governors University
- Duration: Two years
Traditional BSN Programs: Traditional BSNs are four-year programs starting after high school, culminating in a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.
- Sample program: University of Oklahoma – Fran and Earl Ziegler College of Nursing
- Duration: Four years
Step 2C: Earn an MSN or MPH Degree (Optional, Two to Three Years)
Earning a master of science in nursing (MSN) or a master’s in public health (MPH) degree is particularly beneficial for public health nurses who wish to take on advanced roles within the field. This higher level of education often includes specialized coursework in public health policy, epidemiology, and health promotion strategies, equipping nurses with the knowledge and skills to lead initiatives, influence health policy, and advocate for population health.
MSN Programs: These are advanced degree programs that equip registered nurses with the specialized knowledge and skills required for roles in public health nursing.
- Sample program: Drexel University
- Duration: Two to four years
MPH Programs: These are master of public health degrees that provide nurses with the comprehensive training needed to address complex health issues at the population level and enhance public health outcomes.
- Sample program: Oregon Health & Science University & Portland State University (MPH and graduate certificate)
- Duration: Two to four years
Step 2D: Earn a Post-Master’s Certificate in Public Health Nursing (Optional, One to Two Years)
Post-master’s certificates in public health nursing are advanced educational programs designed for nurses with a master of science in nursing degree, aiming to specialize their public health skills and knowledge.
- Sample program: University of Cincinnati
- Duration: One to two years
Step 2E: Earn a DNP or PhD in Nursing (Optional, Four or More Years)
Earning a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or a PhD in nursing offers significant benefits, particularly for those involved in public health nursing. These advanced degrees provide the highest level of nursing training, focusing on practice management, quality improvement strategies, and leadership skills, enabling nurses to take on prominent roles in shaping healthcare policy, improving patient care, and leading public health initiatives.
DNP Programs: These are doctor of nursing practice degrees that prepare nurses for leadership roles in public health, enabling them to implement evidence-based strategies and improve healthcare outcomes at the community level.
- Sample program: University of Colorado (DNP or DNP/MPH dual degree)
- Duration: Two to four years
PhD in Nursing Programs: These are research-focused doctoral programs that prepare nurses to contribute to public health by conducting original research, influencing health policy, and educating future generations of nurses.
- Sample program: Walden University
- Duration: Two to four years
Step 3: Take and Pass the NCLEX Exam (Timeline Varies)
After completing a nursing program, aspiring nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to become licensed registered nurses.
Step 4: Gain Public Health Nursing Experience (Three to Five Years)
It’s beneficial to gain experience in a clinical or community setting, particularly in areas related to public health. This requirement is essential for those seeking CPH certification.
Step 5: Earn the Certification in Public Health (CPH) Credential (Three to Five Years)
Those with a few years of public health nursing experience can earn a certification such as the CPH credential from the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE). Eligibility for the CPH requires a bachelor’s degree with five years of public health experience or a graduate degree with three years of experience. Alternatively, a master’s or doctoral degree in public health also qualifies. Take the test with a live proctor or at a testing center.
What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?
A public health nurse plays a vital role in promoting community health by focusing on prevention and treatment of diseases, improving access to care, and working towards health equity for all population groups. They work with individuals and families, groups, and communities to create environments that promote good health.
Public health nurses often collaborate with other healthcare professionals and stakeholders to address health disparities and advocate for policies that improve community health.
- Health Education: They educate communities about risk factors and prevention strategies for various diseases and conditions.
- Disease Prevention: They implement and manage vaccination programs or screenings to prevent the spread of diseases.
- Community Outreach: They participate in community outreach programs to identify health needs, provide care, and connect individuals with appropriate resources.
- Health Policy Advocacy: They advocate for public policies that improve community health and ensure access to care.
- Research: They conduct and contribute to research studies to understand public health issues and develop solutions.
- Case Management: They provide case management services, coordinating care and ensuring individuals receive the necessary health services.
How Much Do Public Health Nurses Make?
Salaries can vary significantly depending on location, experience, and specialization. According to Indeed (October 2023), the average salary for a public health nurse in the United States was around $68,557 per year. By comparison, Payscale reports a similar annual salary of $69,256 or $31.23, while Glassdoor estimates the total pay for a public health nurse is much higher at $93,600 annually.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not keep specific data for public health nurses, but shows the salary percentiles for registered nurses (RNs), based on data from May 2022:
- 10th percentile: $61,250 per year
- 25th percentile: $66,680
- 50th percentile (median): $81,220
- 75th percentile: $101,100
- 90th percentile: $129,400
By comparison, advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with master’s degrees and higher earn higher wages. Here are the salary percentiles for nurse practitioners (NPs) from the BLS in May 2022:
- 10th percentile: $87,340 per year
- 25th percentile: $103,250
- 50th percentile (median): $121,610
- 75th percentile: $135,470
- 90th percentile: $165,240
Registered Nurses (RNs):
- California: $133,340 per year on average
- Hawaii: $113,220
- Oregon: $106,610
- Massachusetts: $104,150
- Alaska: $103,310
Nurse Practitioners (NPs):
- California: $158,130 per year on average
- New Jersey: $143,250
- Massachusetts: $138,700
- Oregon: $136,250
- Nevada: $136,230
Public Health Nurse Certification
Public health nursing certifications are specialized credentials that recognize the expertise of nurses in public health. These certifications, such as the Advanced Public Health Nurse-Board Certified (APHN-BC) from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) (available as a renewal only) or the Certified in Public Health (CPH) from the National Board of Public Health Examiners, validate a nurse’s knowledge and skills in public health principles and practices.
Certification typically involves meeting specific educational and experience requirements, successfully passing an examination, and sometimes completing specific clinical hours. These certifications can enhance a nurse’s professional credibility, open up new career opportunities, and demonstrate a commitment to public health nursing practice excellence.
The Certified in Public Health (CPH) credential offered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE) is a well-recognized certification that validates an individual’s knowledge and expertise in the field of public health.
Eligibility requirements for this certification vary based on education and work experience in public health. The candidates can be students, alumni, faculty of a school or program accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), or individuals with substantial public health work experience. For instance, individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree in any concentration require five years of public health work experience. In comparison, those with a relevant graduate-level degree need three years of public health work experience.
- Credential: Certified Public Health (CPH)
- Eligibility: Students, alumni, and faculty of a school or program accredited by CEPH or three to five years of public health work.
- Duration: Two years
- Fee: $385
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).