What is a Public Health Nurse?

If you are entering the field of nursing, you may be considering various nursing specialties. Some nursing students find themselves asking “What is a public health nurse?” The field of public health nursing actually came about in the late 1800s as a means of stemming preventable illnesses among New York City’s poor. Even back then, the goal was to expand the scope of nursing from care for patients during illness to include guarding the health of the public.

Unlike most nurses who only care for individual patients, public health nurses provide care to entire communities. Their goal is to improve the health of their community and to ensure that its residents have better access to care.

What Public Health Nurses Do

The field of public health nursing is built around the notion that health care starts in the community, not in a hospital or medical practice. Public health nurses know that numerous factors can affect health, ranging from an individual’s lifestyle to their genes and their environment. Much of what they do is focused on educating people, and their daily work involves such tasks as:

• Delivering presentations to the community’s students or to groups of senior citizens.

• Formulating policies that will help to prevent disease and promote health in the community.

• The design of health information and disease prevention campaigns; these can include immunization drives and screenings.

Their other tasks that are not directly related to education include:

• Visiting the homes of patients to determine health needs and then developing health care plans that include nursing services and treatments.

• Cooperating with families of convalescents to arrange care.

• In a rural community, providing immunizations to the local children.

• Evaluating the health trends and risks faced by individuals in their community.

• Helping their community to prepare for and recover from natural disasters.

Work Environments for Public Health Nurses

Public health nurses may work for health centers in their community, county or state departments of health; they may also work for schools or correctional facilities. Public health nurses may work alone or as a part of a team where they supervise other personnel.

Education for Public Health Nurses

In order to become a public health nurse, an individual must first be licensed as a registered nurse. They should also have supervised nursing experience in a community setting, school or with a department of health. Many nursing schools offer students the opportunity to specialize in public health nursing. There are master’s degrees available that will prepare students for advanced practice in community settings (see: What Should I Know Before Getting My Master’s in Nursing). The curriculum typically includes teaching in such areas as environmental health, social justice and leadership.

Career Outlook for Public Health Nurses

The shortage of nurses means that their skills are in high demand, especially in low-income communities. Some government agencies are now starting to recognize the value of preventing illnesses and educating the public. Because public health nurses work with ethnically diverse populations, there is a need for nurses from different backgrounds and who are able to speak multiple languages. Nurses fluent in Spanish are especially desirable.

The answer to the question, “What is a public health nurse?” will continue to evolve as health care continues to evolve. The future promises new strategies that can be implemented to promote health and prevent disease. Public health nurses will be even better equipped to empower their communities and improve the health care provided to them.