Public Health Nurse (PHN) Career Overview

NurseJournal Staff
Updated November 23, 2022
    What does it take to become a public health nurse? Use this career guide to learn more about educational requirements and employment and salary possibilities.
    mini logo

    Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

    A multi-ethnic group of medical professionals are sitting together at a table discussing a public health case. A young white female nurse is leading the conversation. She has short brown hair and is wearing her light blue scrubs.Credit: FatCamera | E+ | Getty Images

    average program length

    average earning potential

    average earning potential$45,000-$91,000SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

    What Does a PHN Do?

    ADN or BSN required + RN license
    certification optional

    PHNs promote and protect community health by combining nursing training with knowledge from the social sciences. These nurses help specific targeted communities stay healthy and safe. Depending on community needs, PHNs perform a variety of duties in administration, education, advocacy, and assessment.

    Credit: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

    Where Do PHNs Work?

    Because they serve entire communities rather than one patient at a time, PHNs do not always work in the usual settings that employ other registered nurses (RNs), such as hospitals and clinics. Instead, they find positions in government public health departments, community agencies, schools, correctional facilities, and voluntary organizations, providing critical healthcare services and carrying out research, education, and administrative functions. Common settings and roles for PHNs include these worksites:

    Community Agencies

    • Provide direct services such as dispensing medication or ordering tests
    • Identifying and addressing their community’s healthcare priorities
    • Conduct educational programs addressing their target community health needs, such as addiction, obesity, and family planning
    • Develop policy initiatives to address pressing community health issues such as nutrition, hygiene, and access to clean water

    Voluntary Organizations

    • Identify, monitor, and respond to immediate healthcare needs for communities in crisis
    • Educate community members and connect them with resources to prevent the spread of disease and control epidemics
    • Work with medical teams to provide direct assistance applying specialized training in emergency preparedness and disaster relief

    Government Agencies

    • Use clinical knowledge and research skills to develop national policy addressing specific concerns or improving at-risk populations’ overall health
    • Serve in administrative roles and oversee research teams
    • Develop, evaluate, and assess policy initiatives, and plan educational programs
    Loading...Learn More
    Visit Site
    Loading...Learn More
    Visit Site
    Loading...Learn More
    Visit Site

    Why Become a PHN?

    Because of its overall focus on at-risk and vulnerable groups, public health nursing typically appeals to RNs who want to promote wellness, educate others, and ensure healthcare access for entire communities. Despite its challenges, public health nursing offers significant personal and professional rewards for nurses committed to positively affecting populations in need.

    Advantages to Becoming a PHN

    • check-circleIncreasing employment demand, especially in underserved and low-income areas
    • check-circlePotential for advancement in policy and administrative careers
    • check-circleOpportunities to engage in advocacy and activism, improving healthcare quality, access, and safety
    • check-circlePersonal fulfillment helping communities meet their healthcare needs

    Disadvantages to Becoming a PHN

    • x-circleRisk of physical injury or psychological stress working with at-risk populations or in emergency situations
    • x-circleWorking without professional nursing supervision
    • x-circleScarce resources and budget constraints in both government and nonprofit sectors may lead to stress
    • x-circleLower salaries than other nursing specialties

    How To Become a PHN

    To become a public health nurse, students must first complete their nursing education and RN licensure requirements. PHNs may pursue the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE) certificate in public health (CPH) credential. NBPHE offers several pathways to be eligible for the certification exam.

    Graduate with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a BSN.

    Although associate degree holders may earn RN licensure, most public health employers hire RNs who have completed at least a BSN from an accredited nursing program.

    Pass the NCLEX-RN exam to earn RN licensure.

    The National Council of State Boards of Nursing administers this national examination, which verifies nursing knowledge and competencies required for state licensure.

    Complete the necessary public health certification prerequisites.

    These include either a bachelors degree in any concentration and a minimum of five years of public health work experience; a relevant graduate degree with at least three years of public health work experience; or a certificate from a school or program of public health accredited by CEPH and three years of public health work experience.

    Improve your job prospects by passing the CPH exam.

    Although the CPH is a voluntary credential, many employers prefer to hire CPH-certified public health professionals.

    How Much Do PHNs Make?

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the employment for all RNs to grow by 7% through 2029, including those with public health certification. Career and salary prospects for PHN jobs will continue to expand as government agencies direct more attention to preventive care and health education.

    PHNs need the skills to work with diverse populations, often in underserved and low-income communities. Bilingual nurses who are fluent in English and Spanish should enjoy expanding employment opportunities.

    According to PayScale, PHNs earn a national median salary of $58,230. These nurses can expect to begin their careers drawing a median salary of $50,710, rising to $57,300 by midcareer, and $66,510 for PHNs with over 10 years of experience.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    How is public health nursing different from other types of nursing?

    Nurses typically work alongside other medical staff in hospitals, clinics, and outpatient facilities, where they care for individual patients. Although PHNs may perform similar clinical services, they usually focus on community healthcare, illness prevention, and wellness promotion. Many work for government or nonprofit agencies, responding to healthcare crises and trends and formulating educational and policy initiatives.

    What is the difference between a PHN and a community health nurse?

    The scope of PHN practice emphasizes policy reform, education, advocacy, and health promotion to improve overall community health outcomes. While often trained in public health, community health nurses work directly with individuals, groups, and families within specific communities, applying their clinical training to serve patients who may not be able to pay for or access healthcare services.

    What skills are important for PHNs?

    PHNs complement their training in clinical nursing and public health sciences with organizational and communication skills. They must work well in groups, as both team leaders and members, and become adept at managing scarce resources and prioritizing their efforts to achieve results. These professionals must listen to all community stakeholders, remaining open and sensitive to cultural differences.

    What can you do with a graduate degree in public health?

    A graduate degree in public health opens doors to an array of rewarding careers in healthcare administration, policy, and education. Graduates with a master of public health (MPH) find positions in fields as diverse as epidemiology and infection control, biostatistics, health informatics, and disaster management. RNs interested in public health may pursue dual MPH and master’s in nursing programs.

    Professional Organizations for PHNs

    • Association of Public Health Nurses

      APHN advances the practice of public health nursing. The association advocates for professional standards, provides educational opportunities, and establishes national policy on public health issues. Students enrolled in public health nursing programs may apply for a reduced membership rate.
    • American Public Health Association

      Representing over 25,000 public health professionals and advocates for public health issues and policies, APHA influences federal public health policies and conducts public awareness campaigns. APHA also hosts an annual meeting and expo. Student members are automatically enrolled in the nations largest student-led public health organization, APHA Student Assembly.
    • Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health

      ASPPH represents public health schools and programs accredited by CEPH. The association recognizes contributions to research and practice by conferring faculty and staff at its member institutions with awards. Current students and graduates may apply for practice-based training opportunities through ASPPH fellowship and internship programs.

    Related Pages

    Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

    Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.