While regular nurses have a reputation for caring for individuals, public health nurses play a special role in that they care for the entire community as a whole. It’s easy to appreciate nurses in the hospital who dress a bandage and put in an IV. It’s more abstract to appreciate public health nurses today who organized a vaccination campaign that prevented crippling illnesses 25 years ago. But the role of public health nurses is of the utmost importance in the big picture.
During the recent Cornavirus pandemic Rear Admiral Aisha K. Mix, the Chief Officer of the US Public Health Service, distinguished public health nurses saying, “Your engagement as public health nurses in states, territories, tribal nations, and within local jurisdictions across the country is invaluable.” As public health nurses know, as one health crisis ends it’s never too soon to start preparing for the next.
Requirements to Become a Public Health Nurse
Public health nurses are required to go through the same basic-training boot camp as every other nurse, and that means passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Most nurses, including those who work in public health, take the NCLEX-RN, which results in the “RN” credential awarded by your state’s Department of Nursing.
To be eligible to take the NCLEX-RN exam you must have at least a diploma or associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) from a school that’s approved by your state’s Department of Nursing and/or by an organization recognized by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, the organization responsible for the NCLEX-RN.
Depending on your career goals you may want to earn a BS in Nursing (BSN), MS in Nursing (MSN), or even a doctoral-level degree in nursing (commonly a doctor of nursing practice or DNP) before taking the NCLEX-RN. Some BSN programs, and especially MSN and DNP programs, can offer specializations in public health and related fields.
A BSN is quickly becoming a standard requirement for all nursing jobs. Some states are already legislating this, like New York, where a BSN is required after 10 years of work. A more specialized big-picture field like public health nursing can have even higher education standards.
Progressing through your career can certainly be aided by an advanced education. In their textbook Public Health Nursing: Population-Centered Health Care in the Community, 9th Edition, authors Stanhope and Lancaster state that, “Educational preparation for the APHN [Advanced Public Health Nurse] includes a minimum of a master’s degree and is based on a synthesis of current knowledge and research in nursing, public health, and other scientific disciplines.”
Nurse Officers in the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), are required to have at least a bachelor’s or master’s degree and a valid RN license. They enjoy benefits like :
- Retirement after 20 years
- $25,000 four-year contract signing bonus
- 30 days annual paid vacation plus federal holidays
- Education loan repayment
It’s difficult to pinpoint average salary figures for public heath nurses because those vary by employer and location. But nationally a Public Health Nurse with DHHS earns between $45,627 and $71,164 per year.
Job outlook for public health nurses
Over the decade leading up to 2028 the US Department of Labor projects nurse jobs will increase by 12%, with the economy adding 371,500 nurse jobs over that period.
Calculated in a pre-Covid-19 Virus world, that demand for nurses will undoubtedly be even stronger, thanks in large part to an increase in awareness for the importance of healthcare workers who’ve recently earned a hero status from the general public.
Perhaps those who stand to benefit most are public health nurses. Recently a position paper by the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) described the national situation for public health nurses as being woefully imbalanced. It noted that while public health nurses comprise 25% of the public health workforce nationally, they only account for 7.8% of the national nursing workforce; public health nurses are eclipsed and out-competed in their own profession by their more attention-grabbing acute-care colleagues.
Or at least they were. Now that public health is front-and-center in the national eye, that situation can change. As WSNA notes, placing a stronger emphasis on public health nursing is paramount to, “rebuild infrastructure, sustain the public health system’s capacity to provide safe quality public health services, and ultimately to improve population health outcomes.” Words that ring even truer in the aftermath of the 2019-2020 Coronavirus pandemic.
Public health nurse organizations include: