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Public health nurses (PHNs) can work in a variety of settings, including a school nurse's office, a women's health clinic in an inner-city neighborhood, or in the aftermath of a major hurricane.
These special nurses help improve the health and well-being of communities — whether that means giving vaccines to dog sledders in rural Alaska or teaching recent immigrants about health resources in their new communities.
Public health nurses are a vital part of the healthcare system. They often work in underserved communities providing direct care health services and education to improve health outcomes.
To give you an idea of the variety in this field, consider these five places where public health nurses work.
1. Community Clinics
Community health focuses on the well-being of specific communities, providing both health promotion and direct care to individuals.
Public health nurses work in community clinics serving individuals who may not otherwise have access to care or cannot afford healthcare services. They provide services similar to other primary care settings. Treating urgent illnesses, managing chronic conditions, delivering immunizations, providing preventive care, and educating patients on health and wellness often top the list of services public health nurses provide.
In fact, education is a primary concern of community health nurses, who often implement programs specific to their communities, dealing with issues like teen pregnancy, obesity, infectious disease, and substance abuse. Their efforts may include providing counseling and screenings, handing out flyers, or developing other projects designed to support the well-being and deliver quality care to underserved members of the community.
2. Government Agencies
Many public health nurses work for government agencies, from health departments and worksites to correctional facilities. Roles within these organizations vary as well. For example, a public health nurse working in a correctional facility may provide direct patient care, while those working within health departments typically fill advocacy or research roles.
Public health nurses working in government settings help find solutions to widespread health issues, including disease outbreaks like COVID-19. They focus on the sources of health trends and problems, then identify and develop policies, education initiatives, and partnership opportunities to improve outcomes.
Government agencies offer a variety of roles for public health nurses. For example, you might:
- Manage grants for a state agency or the CDC
- Conduct epidemiological research related to disease outbreaks
- Oversee public health emergency preparedness programs
- Develop immunization clinics in areas of need
Overall, public health nurses in the government sector work on creating system-level policy reform to ensure the best outcomes.
3. Outpatient Clinics
In many communities, outpatient clinics fill a vital need for residents who may not have access to a primary care practice or hospital. Outpatient clinics may provide general care for minor illnesses or focus on a specific need, such as women's health or substance abuse.
Public health nurses in this setting provide direct patient care and education. They might perform a pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection test or administer medication at an opioid treatment center. However, public health nurses are also a source of health information and work with patients to ensure they have access to healthcare resources. For instance, outpatient clinics may educate young pregnant women on caring for themselves during pregnancy or provide important information about breastfeeding, immunizations, or other topics.
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4. School Systems
School nurses do more than offer first aid for students. They are trained public health professionals on the front lines of health promotion and illness prevention. Among their many responsibilities, school public health nurses:
- Educate children and their families about hygiene, nutrition, and disease prevention
- Oversee immunization programs and compliance
- Serve as a member of the care team for children with chronic illnesses
- Inform system-wide health policies as they relate to school environments
- Develop and deliver health education programs about sexual health, substance abuse, mental health, and more
- Monitor at-risk children and respond as needed
The goal of a school nurse is to keep students healthy and safe so they can focus on learning. However, their work helps set the foundation for a lifetime of health and wellness and provides the support that many families need to stay healthy.
5. Nonprofit Organizations
Nonprofit organizations related to health, social justice, education, and women's issues often hire public health nurses to contribute to their efforts. From large-scale institutions, such as the Red Cross, to smaller, population-focused organizations, public health nurses are needed to provide patient care, lead disaster relief and emergency response efforts, provide education, and contribute to policy reform and advocacy efforts. These jobs might involve:
- Writing proposals and grants
- Serving in communication and outreach roles
- Coordinating development and fundraising
- Developing education and outreach programs
- Conducting and analyzing research
Most nonprofit organizations focus on a specific issue or population, such as securing healthcare for the LGBTQ+ community, which allows public health nurses to focus on personally meaningful work.
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