Public Health Nurse (PHN) Career Overview

by NurseJournal Staff
Public Health Nurse (PHN) Career Overview

PHNs work to improve healthcare delivery, access, and safety within communities. This career guide explores the role of a PHN, work settings, specific skills, educational pathways, and licensing requirements.

What Does a PHN Do?

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.

ADN or BSN required + RN license
certification optional

Primary Responsibilities

  • Assessing healthcare needs and risk factors and setting priorities for targeted interventions
  • Advocating for and developing public policy, targeted health promotion, and disease prevention for specific communities and population groups
  • Evaluating available healthcare services and facilitating access to and use of these services
  • Working with interdisciplinary teams to identify, anticipate, and respond to public health concerns
  • Providing health education, care management, and direct primary care to members of vulnerable communities and at-risk populations

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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

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

  • Increasing employment demand, especially in underserved and low-income areas
  • Potential for advancement in policy and administrative careers
  • Opportunities to engage in advocacy and activism, improving healthcare quality, access, and safety
  • Personal fulfillment helping communities meet their healthcare needs

Disadvantages to Becoming a PHN

  • Risk of physical injury or psychological stress working with at-risk populations or in emergency situations
  • Working without professional nursing supervision
  • Scarce resources and budget constraints in both government and nonprofit sectors may lead to stress
  • Lower 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 bachelor's 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

  • 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.
  • 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 nation's largest student-led public health organization, APHA Student Assembly.
  • 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.

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