Is a public health nursing career right for you?

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One reason nursing is an attractive field is the wide variety of nursing jobs. Individuals can often find nursing careers that align with their interests and professional ambitions, whether family nurse practitioner, nurse leader or certified nurse midwife. Another trending area is public health, so many nurses are considering what skills and knowledge they need to become a public health nurse.

Public health is concerned with prevention and education at a high level, but nurses who find careers in public health still need clinical experience. Furthermore, they need to understand policy and know how to track trends in local, national or global health. Public health nurses are also advocates for patients and communities, which makes earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) a good idea for many.

What is public health?

According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), the concept of public health is to promote and protect “the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.” That means observing trends, assessing and acting on them. Many common health care concepts fit into public health, like vaccinations, smoking cessation efforts, pharmaceutical drug safety and regulation, workplace health standards, fitness and exercise campaigns, and nutrition.

Disease prevention is a driving force behind public health, but those who work in the discipline also monitor outbreaks, investigate instances of disease spread, assist on the ground, and then use those data and insights to help craft policies to improve care delivery, management and quality.

What is public health nursing?

As defined by the Association of Public Health Nurses (APHN), public health nursing is “the practice of promoting and protecting the health of populations using knowledge from nursing, social and public health sciences.” Included in those core duties are focusing on population health, promoting population health, and preventing disease and disability. Professionals with a DNP can achieve these nursing career goals by combining their wealth of clinical experience and deep knowledge of medical science. Nurses are natural advocates for diverse patient populations, which puts them in a unique position of influence and outreach. With the robust skills a DNP provides — including data management, interprofessional collaboration, policy creation, critical thinking and health care economics — public health nurses can better assess public health, develop solutions, monitor initiatives and improve outcomes.

Some job responsibilities of public health nurses are:

  • Working as a guide with vulnerable or minority patients to help them navigate the health care system
  • Developing education materials like pamphlets or videos, then strategizing distribution; or planning and hosting events to reach the public or raise media awareness
  • Meeting with health organizations, local clinics, government agencies and officials and other nursing leaders to build information on local trends, risks or opportunities
  • Helping collect, analyze and mine data for insights about community or population health, which informs priorities and interventions
  • Communicating with patients, families, care stakeholders and other groups to hear about needs, concerns and ideas, then advocate or lobby on those issues
  • Assisting on the ground as part of traveling clinics that assist in disasters, disease outbreaks and war; mobilizing as part of education groups that travel local communities

There are a number of settings in which public health nurses are employed. Students can find a job in hospitals, nonprofits, professional associations, public agencies (municipal, state, federal), nongovernmental organizations, school systems, businesses and even technology.

Nurses talking to one anotherHow to become a public health nurse

Public health nurses need a wide variety of skills and knowledge to succeed. They are at the juncture between the clinical understanding of health, wellness and disease, and how those are experienced in individual lives, communities and global public health. Public health nurses must not only be proficient in the sciences, but also have the real-world context of providing care, advocating for patients, pursuing continuous improvement and tracking  populations.

One way to prepare for the demands of public health nursing careers is by completing a DNP program. At Bradley, students interested in public health work can build the necessary competency through courses like:

  • NUR 603 – Health Promotion in Populations: Students will focus on core concepts of health and health promotion for groups, communities and populations. There are two main learning outcomes: that students will have a firm understanding of the principles and determinants of population health with an emphasis on the tools provided by basic epidemiology for understanding health in populations; and that students have a comprehensive understanding of the steps needed to develop, implement and evaluate population-based health promotion and illness prevention programs.
  • NUR 640 – Healthcare Policy: Students will explore how to develop and implement health policy, as well as study the impact of policy on health care regulation, delivery and finance. The focus on wellness and promotion of health extends to all levels, including local, national and worldwide health initiatives. Students will define health care provider roles in health promotion, health care delivery and quality improvement through activities related to health policy reform and finance.
  • NUR 720 – Evidence-Based Practice: Students will be introduced to theories related to research utilization and evidence-based practice. Nurses will examine issues and refine questions related to quality and cost-effective health care delivery for the best outcomes. They’ll learn about methods to collect evidence, plan changes for the transformation of practice and evaluate quality improvement.

Earn your degree at Bradley

Public health is a burgeoning discipline, and many nursing careers can offer students personal fulfillment and the opportunity to make a meaningful positive change. Those interested in becoming a public health nurse might consider earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice to prepare. The coursework in Bradley’s online DNP program is arranged to provide students with the needed skills, competency and insight to achieve public health goals. Interested in learning more about the program? Contact an enrollment advisor today.


Recommended Reading:

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DNP-FNP or PA: How to decide between these two options

Practice independently with an MSN-FNP degree



American Public Health Association

Association of Public Health Nurses

Bradley University DNP-FNP Curriculum