What Is the Role of a Public Health Nurse?

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Public health nurses have a unique position in the health care field, as they focus largely on underserved and disadvantaged populations — for instance, communities affected by poverty. Their work involves mitigating disease and injury, managing the care of individuals diagnosed with communicable diseases, and implementing educational and prevention-focused health programs, such as tobacco cessation initiatives. Ultimately, the role of a public health nurse is to build healthier communities through actions with both a short-term impact (active treatment and referrals for further care) and a long-term impact (education on prevention of health care issues).

An online Master of Public Health program gives future public health nurses the skills they need to address both of these aspects. The program provides training in relevant medical topics, including the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. Additionally, it gives students the skills they need to work with unique patient populations, like veterans. For instance, knowledge of the behavioral sciences allows graduates to successfully understand disadvantaged groups, identify challenges they face in accessing health care, and find ways to provide them with resources.

What Is a Public Health Nurse?

Public health nurses are less involved in the daily patient care of traditional health care settings like doctor’s offices and focus more on community-based work. They may be employed by government or nonprofit agencies focused on improving public health among underserved groups, such as the homeless. These professionals make up about one-quarter of local health department workforces, according to the Center for State & Local Government Excellence. Public health nurses may deal with both physical and mental health issues.

Duties, Responsibilities, and Skills of a Public Health Nurse

Public health nurses provide locally focused patient care and education. In the process, they also document health trends within communities, allowing them to identify potentially at-risk groups and make recommendations on how to help them. For instance, if an uptick of opioid use is observed in a neighborhood, they may alert the agency they work for of the need for increased funding for long-term treatment programs and short-term solutions.

The day-to-day duties required in the role of a public health nurse include the following:

Providing Patient Care

Public health nurses serve as a firsthand point of contact for patients who might not otherwise seek care at a traditional doctor’s office. This could involve assessing symptoms, making a diagnosis, and proposing a care plan. They may administer some treatments, like flu shots, themselves. This requires clinical knowledge and analytical ability, as well as communication and cultural competency. If a nurse must advise a person with poor health literacy on how to manage diabetes, for instance, they must do this in clear language that the patient understands.

Referring Patients to Available Resources

Public health nurses may come across cases they cannot treat immediately themselves. In such scenarios, they must be able to point patients in the direction of professionals who can provide them with the care they need. This requires communication ability as well as knowledge of local public health policy and resources. Say they treat a pregnant woman for an iron deficiency, for instance. They may refer her to a low-cost community health clinic where she can receive the prenatal care she needs.

Educating Individuals and Communities

A public health nurse’s work is largely focused on educating individuals, families, and communities on important health issues. They provide information about preventive care measures that can keep people healthy and spare them the physical, emotional, and financial burden of preventable illnesses. This requires knowledge of how communities function practically as they must find ways to reach individuals. For instance, in an impoverished community, they might provide seminars on the dangers of tobacco use through local schools or churches.

Documenting their Work

Finally, public health nurses must document their daily work and historical patient data for the organizations for whom they work. This is increasingly completed via electronic health records. This requires policy development skills as well as an aptitude for financial management. For instance, if they notice an uptick of opioid use in the community they work in, they might flag this as an issue of concern that requires active educational efforts. They could pull concrete figures to argue that education will cost less than the treatment of future addicts, for example.

Salary and Career Growth of a Public Health Nurse

Public health nurses will be increasingly in demand as the shortage of qualified medical personnel grows. This is true in the U.S. and worldwide. A shortage of some 15 million health workers is expected globally by 2030, according to a study published in Human Resources for Health. Taking into consideration the forecast global shortage, it’s no surprise that the role of a public health nurse is expected to become more significant. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job growth of 12% for all nurses, much faster than the national average. Demand will be more pressing in some areas, such as care for the elderly (due to an aging population) and women’s health (due to a high rate of retirement among OB-GYN professionals).

Public health nurses earn a median salary of $58,112 per year, according to PayScale statistics from 2019. Those who gain additional leadership abilities through a program like a Master of Public Health may have the potential to advance to higher-paid positions. PayScale reports that a public health analyst, for instance, earns a median salary of $62,401.

Start Your Public Health Nursing Career

Those interested in the role of a public health nurse should consider Ohio University’s Master of Public Health. The demand for experts in this field will only increase in the future, so now is the perfect time to gain the necessary educational credentials to succeed.

The Ohio University curriculum offers a comprehensive education including such courses as Evaluation and Quality Improvement in Healthcare, Rural Health Disparities, Social and Behavioral Sciences in Public Health, and Epidemiology in Public Health. It also prepares you to pursue more advanced positions by providing expertise in areas like biostatistics, which refers to the ability to use statistical techniques to analyze public health problems and disparities.

Finally, the program provides hands-on experience through a practicum, which requires students to perform work at a rural public health organization such as a nonprofit community-based organization or health department. With this mix of theoretical knowledge and practical experience, graduates will be well prepared to excel in the role of a public health nurse.

Recommended Readings

How to Become a Health Educator

How to Become an Epidemiologist in Public Health

3 Lucrative MPH Career Opportunities for Graduates


Association of American Medical Colleges, “New Findings Confirm Predictions on Physician Shortage”

Center for State & Local Government Excellence, The Impending Shortage in the State and Local Public Health Workforce

Food & Drug Administration, Narcan (Naloxone Nasal Spray) Approved to Reverse Opioid Overdose

Human Resources for Health, “Global Health Workforce Labor Market Projections for 2030”

Indianapolis Business Journal, “Retirements, Aging Population Cause Nursing Shortage”

PayScale, Average Public Health Nurse Hourly Pay

Public Health Foundation, Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals: Domains

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses

Vice, “We’re on the Verge of a Devastating OB-GYN Shortage”