How to Become a Public Health Nurse

9 Min Read Published September 19, 2023
Mint green stethoscope over a notepad

Public health nurses educate and advocate for the health of entire communities. Their work is focused on members with a high risk for various health conditions, and they are particularly active during a public health crisis. 

This position works closely with other team members and clinicians to provide health education and disease prevention with the goal of providing the highest level of public health care possible.

In this guide, you’ll find out what a public health nurse does, how much they make, how to become one, and more.

What is a Public Health Nurse?

A public health nurse works to promote and protect the community and their health through disease prevention, health education, and collaboration with other healthcare professionals.

Public health nurses do not focus on acute health care but rather long-term health and safety and ways to prevent illness and improve a community’s access to care. Public health nurses can work directly with patients to conduct health screening activities or work in a community health clinic.

Public health nurses generally serve the underprivileged and disproportionate populations in the United States and around the world.

>> Show Me Online Public Health Programs

What do Public Health Nurses do?

Public Health Nurses are involved in the prevention, education, advocacy, activism, assessment, and evaluation of Public Health. They are involved in the prevention of disease while promoting the public’s safety and well-being. They educate the public about health issues and provide support to other medical professionals.

Other duties of a public health nurse include:

  • Assessing health trends to identify health risk factors specific to communities
  • Assigning priorities for health-related interventions in order to provide the greatest benefit
  • Advocacy with local, state and federal authorities in improving the access to health services in underserved communities
  • Design and implement health education campaigns and activities for disease prevention
  • Provide information on local health programs and services that are available to improve access to care
  • Providing direct health care services to at-risk populations
  • 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
  • Collaborate with healthcare professionals

Public health nurses must be good communicators as educating the public and other health care professionals is a major part of the profession. Public health nurses have the ability to work in a variety of areas including:

  • Community health clinics
  • Research
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Government organizations
  • International health agencies
  • Nonprofit health and community service organizations
  • Veteran’s Affairs Offices
  • Home health agencies
  • U.S. Military
  • Hospitals
  • Academia

Nurses in this field have the flexibility to work a variety of hours based on the needs to the population. Most do not have set hours and it could vary from week to week. Public health nurses will be required to work more hours during public health crisis and immediately following.

The 8 Principles of Public Health Nursing

The Quad Council of Public Health Nursing Organizations developed the following eight tenets of public health nursing to advance the public health nursing goal of promoting and protecting the health of the population.

  1. Population-based assessment, policy development, and assurance processes are systematic and comprehensive. 
  2. All processes must include partnering with representatives of the people.
  3. Primary prevention is given priority. 
  4. Intervention strategies are selected to create healthy environmental, social, and economic conditions in which people can thrive.
  5. Public health nursing practice includes an obligation to actively reach out to all who might benefit from an intervention or service. 
  6. The dominant concern and obligation is for the greater good of all of the people or the population as a whole.
  7. Stewardship and allocation of available resources support the maximum population health benefit gain.
  8. The health of the people is most effectively promoted and protected through collaboration with members of other professions and organizations.

>> Show Me Online Public Health Programs

Public Health Nurse Salary

According to the BLS, the median average salary for registered nurses in the U.S. is $81,220 per year, or $39.05 per hour, as of 2022. While the BLS doesn't differ by specialty, Indeed reports that the average salary for public health nurses as of October 2022 is $64,610 per year.

Highest Paying States for Public Health Nurses

Currently, the highest-paid states for public health nurses that have reported salaries, according to Zippia are as follows:

  • Alaska - $84,738
  • Vermont - $70,757
  • Massachusetts - $72,203
  • New York - $78,153
  • New Hampshire - $67,337
  • Delaware - $71,626

Public Health Nurse Salary by Years of Experience

Payscale reports an annual salary of $64,906 per year or $29.66 per hour. They add that public health nurses can earn a higher annual salary with increased years of experience.

  • Less than one year of experience earns an average hourly wage of $26.50
  • 1-4 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $28.45
  • 5-9 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $29.78
  • 10-19 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $31.96
  • 20+ years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $30.00

Hourly vs. Salary Pay

Most healthcare systems pay nurses on an hourly scale, while others have a fixed annual salary, such as nurses in an office setting. Those paid on an hourly scale are able to earn overtime pay, whereas salaried employees would need to discuss that with the hiring committee.

How to Make More Money as a Public Health Nurse

Nurses working in an office setting are more likely to be paid a salary wage and have fixed hours. Those working in a private office setting tend to earn the highest pay in this field. 

As with all jobs in the nursing field, earning potential increases with additional education and experience. Nurses typically are awarded a raise during annual employee performance reviews. Certifications can give nurses an additional bump in their paychecks. 

How to Become A Public Health Nurse

To become a public health nurse, you must first become a registered nurse (RN).

Step 1: Attend an Accredited Nursing Program

Graduate with a BSN from an accredited nursing program. While you can become a nurse through either an ADN or BSN program, you'll need a bachelor's degree in order to earn your public health certification. 

To get into a nursing program, you need to complete the required prerequisite health science courses such as anatomy and physiology, biology, nutrition, biomedical statistics, and chemistry. Requirements can vary by school; however, some have a GPA requirement of 3.0 or higher for consideration.

You will also need to take and perform well on an entrance exam, such as the Test of Academic Skills (TEAS) exam or the Kaplan Nursing School Admissions test. Some universities also require letters of recommendation, CPR certification, a written career statement explaining why you want to go to nursing school, and a face-to-face interview. 

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX-RN

Upon earning your nursing degree, you will need to become licensed to practice as an RN. NCLEX-RN stands for National Council Licensure Examination- Registered Nurse. It is a nationwide exam for nurses to become licensed in the United States. The exam assesses that you have the clinical knowledge, critical thinking skills, and abilities needed to become an entry-level nurse. 

Step 3: Gain Experience

Once you earn your RN license, you can interview for your first nursing job (although some nurses are hired earlier with the contingency that they must pass the NCLEX-RN before their start date). Many novice nurses start their careers in a completely different specialization working at the bedside to gain experience before they realize that their interests lie in public health nursing.  

There are no rules as to what specific career path you take. However, some RNs say that prior nursing practice experience at the bedside helped them perform better in their careers in public health.

Step 4: Obtain certification as a certified public health nurse

There is currently one certification for individuals in the public health nursing field, Certified Public Health.

This certification is the only one for nurses interested in becoming certified in public health. This certification is NOT only for nurses. To be eligible, individuals must meet the specific criteria:

  • At least a bachelor’s degree in any concentration and at least five subsequent years of public health work experience OR
  • A relevant graduate-level degree and at least three subsequent years of public health work experience OR
  • A certificate from a school or program of public health that is accredited by or in applicant status with CEPH, and at least three subsequent years of public health work experience

Other important information related to the certification include:

  • Fee - $385  
  • Retake Fee - $150
  • Offered year-round
  • Computer-based testing
  • Active duty members of the US Armed Services may be able to use the benefits of the Military Tuition Assistance Program to pay for the CPH examination fee.
  • 200 Questions
  • 4 hours to complete the exam
  • All questions on the exam are multiple-choice and single-best answer.
  • Some questions are: matching items, part of a series of questions related to a common vignette, and have associated pictorials or charts

Recertification includes:

  • At least 50 recertification hours every two years
  • $95 fee

The Advanced Public Health Nursing Certification is no longer available for new certification but is open for renewal for individuals who already have been certified. Renewal information includes:

  • 75 hours of continuing education hours
  • Five semester credits or 6 quarter credits of academic courses in your certification specialty
  • One or more presentations totaling five clock hours in your certification specialty
  • $350 renewal fee

>> Show Me Online Public Health Programs

What is the Career Outlook for Public Health Nursing?

Currently, there is no exact career outlook data for public health nurses. According to the BLS, in 2022, there were 3,172,500 RNs in the United States. By 2032, there will be a need for an additional 177,400 nurses, which is a projected growth of 6%.

The aging population and nursing shortage are creating an increasing need for nurses throughout the United States, and this number will only continue to rise.

What are the Continuing Education Requirements for a Public Health Nurse?

Public Health nurses have the same continuing education requirements as other RNs. This will vary on a state-by-state basis. There are no specific CEU requirements for public health nurses unless they have obtained advanced certification.

Generally, in order for an individual to renew their RN license, they will need to fill out an application, complete a specific number of CEU hours, and pay a nominal fee. Each state has specific requirements, and it is important to check with the board of nursing prior to applying for license renewal.

A detailed look at Continuing Nurse Education hours can be found here.

>> Show Me Online Public Health Programs

Where Can I Learn More about Public Health Nursing?

To find out more information about Public Health nursing, check out these websites:

Public health nursing is a dynamic and ever-changing field. These nurses have the power to make real change when educating the public and helping solve potential crises. They are at the forefront of different pandemics across the globe, and now more than ever, they are of the utmost importance to the nursing profession. 

FAQs About Becoming a Public Health Nurse

  • What is a public health nurse?
    • The American Public Health Association defines public health nursing as "the practice of promoting and protecting the health of populations using knowledge from nursing, social, and public health sciences." A public health nurse works to promote and protect the community and their health through disease prevention, health education, and collaboration with other healthcare professionals.
  • What does a public health nurse do?
    • Public health nurses respond directly to public health crises ranging from outbreaks of different diseases to natural disasters.
  • What is the difference between a public health nurse and a registered nurse?
    • A public health nurse is a registered nurse. Public health nurses are specialized in public health crises. These nurses receive specialized training to work in this field.
  • Is being a public health nurse a good career?
    • Public health nursing is a HOT career choice right now. Amid an ongoing pandemic, public health nurses educate the public, come up with potential treatment options, and work with other healthcare workers to reduce the transmission of the virus.
  • Do public health nurses work in hospitals?
    • Public health nurses can work in a hospital; however, this is uncommon. Most public health nurses work in a community setting, including outpatient clinics, health departments, and global health organizations


$70,000 - $90,000 Bachelors Non-Bedside RN Public Health
Kathleen Gaines
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

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