How to Become a Public Health Nurse

12 Min Read Published March 21, 2024

Public health nurses are community-facing healthcare professionals focused on disease-prevention and education. Read this comprehensive guide to find out what it takes to join this rewarding nursing specialty.

Public Health Nurse Career Guide by Nurse.org

While most registered nurses (RNs) treat individual patients, those in public health advocate for the health of entire communities. Public health nurses (PHNs) work in healthcare teams to provide education and disease prevention within these communities, focusing on high-risk populations.

PHN Fast Facts

Annual Salary

$70,351

Career Outlook

6% Growth 2022-2032

Program Length

2-4 Years


Popular Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs

Sponsored
Grand Canyon University

GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Purdue Global

At Purdue Global, discover a faster, more affordable way to earn your Nursing degree. Purdue Global is committed to keeping your tuition costs as low as possible and helping you find the most efficient path to your degree.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, but certain programs have state restrictions. Check with Purdue for details.

Capella University

Capella’s online RN-to-BSN degree is an accredited program designed for working nurses. Thousands of nurses have completed their BSN program with FlexPath, that allows you to control your pace and set your own deadlines. With FlexPath, you can complete your RN-to-BSN program in 9 months and under $10,000. Fastest 25% of students. Cost varies by pace, transfer credits, other factors. Fees apply.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, but certain programs have state restrictions. Check with Capella for details.

Western Governors University

WGU's award-winning online programs are created to help you succeed while graduating faster and with less debt. WGU is a CCNE accredited, nonprofit university offering nursing bachelor's and master's degrees.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

What is a Public Health Nurse?

The American Public Health Association (APHA) defines public health nursing as "the practice of promoting and protecting the health of populations using knowledge from nursing, social, and public health sciences" (2013).

Following this definition, PHNs work to promote and protect community health by collaborating with healthcare teams to deliver healthcare education and disease prevention to groups. Instead of treating acute health conditions, they focus on long-term health, safety, disease prevention, and improving a community's access to care.

PHN Patient Populations

Public health nurses often serve underprivileged populations in the US and around the world. They deliver education and care to at-risk populations and are particularly active during public health crises. Some examples of groups PHNs work with include unhoused people, the elderly, or immigrant communities.

>> Show Me Online Public Health Programs

What do Public Health Nurses Do?

The role of a public health nurse involves prevention, education, advocacy, activism, assessment, and evaluation of public health. They focus on disease prevention within high-risk communities through education and support.

Some duties a PHN nurse may take on to support these goals include:

  • Assessing health trends to identify risk factors in specific communities

  • Prioritizing health-related interventions

  • Advocating for healthcare access in underserved communities

  • Designing & implementing health education campaigns and activities

  • Distributing information about local health programs and services

  • Providing health care services to at-risk populations

>> Show Me Online Public Health Programs

How to Become A Public Health Nurse

Like other nursing specialties, the first step to becoming a PHN is earning your registered nursing license. Then, you'll gain relevant working experience and earn a public health nursing certification.

Step 1. Attend an Accredited Nursing Program

You can attend a 2-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a 4-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree to become an RN.

While both degrees qualify you to take the NCLEX-RN exam, the public health nurse certification requires a BSN. So, you may start with an ADN, but you need to work up to your bachelor's before earning your PHN credentials.

Step 2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Examination

After graduating from nursing school, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become a licensed registered nurse. This test assesses whether you have the clinical knowledge, critical thinking skills, and abilities needed to become an entry-level nurse.

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Step 3. Gain Experience

While not necessary for many entry-level PHN jobs, bedside experience has undeniable benefits. For example, working as a staff nurse can help guide your career decisions, leading you toward public health or a specialty more suited to your interests. 

Additionally, bedside experience can help you land better public health nursing jobs. Not only will it increase your confidence, but it will also fill your resume with impressive, relevant accomplishments that give you a competitive edge. 

Step 4. Earn a Public Health Nursing Certification

Like other public health professionals, PHNs can earn the Certified Public Health credential. While not specific to nursing, this certification showcases your knowledge and skills in the public health sciences. Earning and maintaining this credential signifies your dedication to excellence in the field.

Eligibility requirements for the CPH include:

  • A bachelor's degree in any concentration and at least five years of experience working in public health OR

  • A relevant graduate degree and three years of experience working in public health OR

  • A graduate-level public health certificate from a CEPH-accredited or applicant school and three years of experience working in public health

The computer-based exam costs $385, and retakes cost $150. The exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions, which you'll have four hours to complete. 

>> Show Me Online Public Health Programs

Public Health Nurse Salary

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that RNs earn a median annual salary of $81,220 per year, or $39.05 per hour. Comparatively, Indeed reveals that public health nurses earn $70,351 per year, slightly less than the national average.

Highest Paying States for Public Health Nurses

Currently, the states with the highest annual public health nurse salary are as follows:

  • Alaska: $91,663

  • Massachusetts: $90,362

  • Washington: $86,947

  • Nevada: $86,668

  • Colorado: $85,212

Source: ZipRecruiter, Extracted 21 March 2024

Public Health Nurse Salary by Years of Experience

Payscale reports an annual salary of $71,803 per year or $32.61 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 $26.96

  • 1-4 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $30.72

  • 5-9 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $30.55

  • 10-19 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $32.79

  • 20+ years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $31.07

How to Make More Money as a Public Health Nurse

You can optimize your public health nursing salary by pursuing jobs in high-paying workplaces. Although PHNs can work in several environments, those working in a private office setting tend to earn the most.

Additionally, advanced education, experience, and certifications can help increase your salary. These factors make you eligible for higher-paid PHN positions and give you leverage during salary negotiations.

Popular Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs

Sponsored
Grand Canyon University

GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Purdue Global

At Purdue Global, discover a faster, more affordable way to earn your Nursing degree. Purdue Global is committed to keeping your tuition costs as low as possible and helping you find the most efficient path to your degree.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, but certain programs have state restrictions. Check with Purdue for details.

Capella University

Capella’s online RN-to-BSN degree is an accredited program designed for working nurses. Thousands of nurses have completed their BSN program with FlexPath, that allows you to control your pace and set your own deadlines. With FlexPath, you can complete your RN-to-BSN program in 9 months and under $10,000. Fastest 25% of students. Cost varies by pace, transfer credits, other factors. Fees apply.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, but certain programs have state restrictions. Check with Capella for details.

Western Governors University

WGU's award-winning online programs are created to help you succeed while graduating faster and with less debt. WGU is a CCNE accredited, nonprofit university offering nursing bachelor's and master's degrees.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

What is the Career Outlook for Public Health Nursing?

Zippia reports that public health nursing jobs will grow by 6% from 2018 to 2018. This prediction is on par with the growth trend for all nurses. According to the BLS, all nursing jobs will grow by 6% from 2022 to 2032, creating an additional 177,400 nursing jobs.

Where Can Public Health Nurses Work?

Public health nurses can work in various environments, including:

  • Community health clinics

  • Research facilities

  • Outpatient clinics

  • Government organizations

  • International health agencies

  • Home healthcare agencies
  • Veterans Affairs offices

  • Nonprofit health organizations

  • Community service organizations

  • U.S. Military

  • Hospitals

  • Academia

While many public health nurses work flexible hours based on the needs of their community, others have a fixed schedule. In any environment, PHNs will work more hours during public health crises and immediately following.

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

In addition to continuing education units (CEUs) required to maintain their RN license, public health nurses must complete CEUs for their certifications. 

RN License Renewal

Each state has its own continuing education standards for registered nurses. In most cases, you'll need to complete a specific number of CEUs, complete an application, and pay a nominal fee. To learn more about your state's requirements, read our guide to RN CEUs by state.

Certified Public Health Recertification

You must renew the CPH credential every two years. During that time, you must complete at least 30 units of recertification activities. Additionally, you must complete and submit a renewal application and fee.

Advanced Public Health Nursing ReCertification

The Advanced Public Health Nursing Certification is no longer available but is still open for renewal if you already have it. Every five years, individuals with this credential must:

  • Complete 75 continuing education hours
  • Earn 5 semester or 6 quarter credits of academic courses in public health
  • Attend one or more presentations related to public health nursing totaling 5 hours
  • Pay a $350 renewal fee

>> 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. 

Popular Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs

Sponsored
Grand Canyon University

GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Purdue Global

At Purdue Global, discover a faster, more affordable way to earn your Nursing degree. Purdue Global is committed to keeping your tuition costs as low as possible and helping you find the most efficient path to your degree.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, but certain programs have state restrictions. Check with Purdue for details.

Capella University

Capella’s online RN-to-BSN degree is an accredited program designed for working nurses. Thousands of nurses have completed their BSN program with FlexPath, that allows you to control your pace and set your own deadlines. With FlexPath, you can complete your RN-to-BSN program in 9 months and under $10,000. Fastest 25% of students. Cost varies by pace, transfer credits, other factors. Fees apply.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, but certain programs have state restrictions. Check with Capella for details.

Western Governors University

WGU's award-winning online programs are created to help you succeed while graduating faster and with less debt. WGU is a CCNE accredited, nonprofit university offering nursing bachelor's and master's degrees.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

FAQs About Becoming a Public Health Nurse

  • What is a public health nurse?

    • A public health nurse promotes and protects the community and its 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?

    • Registered nurse refers to any nurse with an ADN or BSN degree who passed the NCLEX exam. Public health nurses are a type of RN with specialized training that prepares them to address public health crises.
  • Is being a public health nurse a good career?

    • The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of the ongoing need for public health experts. Not only is public health nursing a rewarding career, but it's also very stable since public health professionals are always in demand.
  • 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
MSN, RN, BA, CBC
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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