Public Health Nurse

Public health can be defined as the art and science of preventing disease. This is accomplished through education campaigns, strategic interventions, and helping the most at-risk clients. Public health nurses take on entire communities as patients to lead the charge in improving overall health.

Public health nurses work in teams with other healthcare professionals to better a community’s health. These can include epidemiologists, health educators, physicians, social workers, and administrators. The primary purpose of a public health nurse is to prevent diseases, provide health education, and collaborate with community members.

Instead of focusing on acute illnesses, public health nurses often look toward long-term systemic diseases that can be mitigated. 

To help communities, public health nurses must determine the cause of the issues. They can be responsible for interviewing patients, developing surveys, and gathering data. Public health nurses also have specialized training to analyze and interpret data and determine the most appropriate intervention to help the most people.

The career of a public health nurse starts with earning either an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing. Upon completing a degree and obtaining a registered nurse license, nurses can begin working towards specializing in public health. Some nurses may choose to go directly into public health and learn the necessary skills through on-the-job training, but others pursue additional education. There are many flexible, fully online options to pursue higher education in public health that allows nurses to further their careers without relocating or quitting work. 

Continue reading to learn more about this community-centric career option in nursing, including top online and on-campus programs, typical duties, and potential salaries.

Public Health Nurse Specializations & Degree Types

Public health nurses are registered nurses who specialize in community well-being. There are several educational paths toward pursuing this career. To begin with, students must earn an associate or bachelor’s in nursing and become licensed as registered nurses (RNs) to practice nursing in their state. Then, they can complete on-the-job training or pursue additional education.

The most common advanced degrees earned to work as a public health nurse include a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) with an emphasis in public or community health. Alternatively, there are master of nursing degrees or post-graduate certificates in public health that students can earn to gain the skills necessary to enter this field.

Admissions Requirements for Public Health Nurse Programs

Nursing program admissions are relatively competitive. Applicants must have extensive prerequisite coursework, a minimum GPA, letters of recommendation, and a compelling statement of intent. Before applying, candidates should contact their prospective school to ensure they have the necessary qualifications. 

Once students have completed nursing school and secured their nursing license, they can pursue additional education in public health nursing. Most MSN in public or community health programs require a bachelor’s degree, an unrestricted nursing license, letters of recommendation, a statement of intent, and a completed application. Some programs may accept students who hold an RN license but only have an associate degree.

Public Health Nurse Program Accreditation

Students must complete an accredited nursing program to obtain licensure in most states. Accreditation assures employers, licensing organizations, and patients that the program a nurse has completed meets a high standard of quality in faculty, curriculum, and facilities. 

The two primary accrediting bodies for nursing programs are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

On-Campus Public Health Nurse Degree Programs

University of Colorado – College of Nursing

The University of Colorado College of Nursing offers aspiring public health nurses the opportunity to simultaneously earn both DNP and MPH degrees. Earning both degrees at the same time requires 21 fewer credits than completing each program on its own. Students will be prepared for leadership roles in public and community health care by completing this program. This program is specifically designed for students who hold a BSN or an MSN in any specialization besides public health.

Candidates for the dual DNP/MPH program must apply to both degrees and be admitted separately. Admission requirements include an essay, a 3.0 nursing GPA, a BSN, an unencumbered RN license, three letters of recommendation, an interview with the admissions team, and a current CV or resume. 

  • Location: Aurora, CO
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,175 per credit 

Allen College

Graduates of the MSN in community and public health program at Allen College are prepared to step into leadership positions in case management, research, administration, and consultation in public health. This two-and-half-year program emphasizes advanced nursing skills as well as social and public health sciences education. Should students already hold an MSN degree, there is a post-graduate certificate option. 

To be considered for admission to this program, candidates must already hold a bachelor’s of science in nursing (or be registered nurses with a bachelor’s degree in any field). If the candidate is the latter, they will be required to take prerequisite classes in statistics, nursing, and public health.  

  • Location: Waterloo, IA
  • Duration: 2.5 years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $906 per credit 

Hunter College – School of Nursing

With just 42 credits, nurses can complete a master’s of science in community and public health nursing at Hunter College School of Nursing. Students in this program will take a combination of master’s level nursing courses, classes in the School of Public Health, specialization courses, and electives. Required core courses include theoretical foundations of nursing, nursing research, health care systems and policy, introduction to biostatistics, and introduction to epidemiology. 

All students will complete extensive clinical experiences after completing the required core coursework. In total, students must earn 501 clinical hours. Admission requirements for this program include a BSN in nursing, an unencumbered New York nursing license, a 3.0 nursing coursework GPA, and undergraduate coursework in nursing research and statistics.  

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $855 per credit 

Rhode Island College 

The MSN program at Rhode Island College offers several concentrations, including one for population and public health. This concentration prepares nurses to provide advanced care that has the potential to improve the health of communities. Nurses examine the correlation between individual health and public health and the determinants of a healthy community. All students also receive extensive leadership training to step into management roles. 

Most students can complete this program in two years of study. Admission requirements for this program include a bachelor’s degree from an NLNAC- or CCNE-accredited program, official transcripts, GRE or MAT test scores, an unrestricted nursing license in Rhode Island, a resume, three letters of recommendation, a letter of intent, and an interview. 

  • Location: Providence, RI 
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $943 per credit 

Binghamton University State University of New York – Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences

There are three options to complete public health nursing education at Binghamton University State University of New York Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences. Students can complete either an MSN, DNP, or a post-graduate certificate in community health nursing. The programs vary in length, but they all prepare graduates for work in public health. This school boasts a high employment rate for its graduates due to the extensive hands-on training. 

Within the MSN program, students can specialize as either nurse practitioners or as nurse educators. Nurse practitioners will work directly with patients while nurse educators pursue a career to educate the next generation of nurses. Regardless of the path chosen, all MSN students must complete between 46 and 48 credits of coursework. 

  • Location: Binghamton, NY
  • Duration: Two years for an MSN
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $25,345 per year

Online or Hybrid Public Health Nurse Degree Programs

University of Maryland – School of Nursing

The University of Maryland School of Nursing offers a flexible hybrid MSN degree in community and public health nursing. Students will take five courses online and five classes in person. In addition, all students will complete two practicum classes for 315 total hours of clinical practice. Students work with faculty to secure placements that meet their career and educational goals. 

Upon earning this degree, nurses will have a keen understanding of how individual health can impact the community and world health and what can be done to address problems as they arise. This program is open to applicants who have at least an associate’s degree in nursing. Candidates who do not already have a BSN will earn their BSN as they work toward this MSN. There are both full-time and part-time options to complete this degree. 

  • Location: Baltimore, MD
  • Duration: Four semesters
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,490 per credit 

Walden University 

The online MSN degree program at Walden University is designed to help nurses shift from patient-centered care to a career managing community health. Through the required 53 quarter-credits, students will learn leadership, community safety best practices, and how to impact global health. Although students complete all their didactic coursework online, they receive hands-on training through in-person practicums. 

While the easiest way to complete this degree is to have a BSN already, this program is also open to students who have only completed an associate’s degree. Should a student already have a master’s, they can work toward a DNP or PhD in nursing instead of an MSN. 

  • Location: Minneapolis, MN 
  • Duration: At least two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $457 per credit

University of North Carolina, Charlotte – School of Nursing

Courses for the MSN in community public health nursing at the University of North Carolina Charlotte School of Nursing are offered entirely online. However, students who live close to campus can choose to complete some of the core or selected classes in person. A key part of this program is to train nurses to work in partnership with stakeholders, communities, and consumers. There is an emphasis on cultural sensitivity and how to develop realistic and attainable interventions. 

As part of the required 38 semester-credits of coursework, students in this program will complete 360 clinical hours. Electives are included in the required number of credits and allow students to personalize their education. Approved electives include curriculum and instruction in nursing education, trends and issues in nursing education, instructional technology in nursing education, theory and application of organizational behavior, and health promotion and nutrition for older adults.

  • Location: Charlotte, NC
  • Duration: 36 months of part-time studies
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1053.95 per credit 

Worcester State University

Nurses can gain insights and skills in implementing community-wide health initiatives by completing the online MSN in public and population health at Worcester State University. A key part of the curriculum for this degree is to have students examine how the healthcare industry works on a large scale and where changes can be implemented to improve outcomes. All teaching emphasizes evidence-based research and decision making. 

This degree offers remarkably low tuition at only $450 per credit and an estimated $15,570 for the entire program. Although students will complete their didactic coursework online, they will need to complete an intensive in-person practicum to put their learning into practice. To help accommodate most students’ schedules, there are six start dates each year with rolling admissions. 

  • Location: Worcester, MA
  • Duration: 18 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $450 per credit 

Johns Hopkins University – School of Nursing

Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing offers a joint online MSN in public health nursing and master’s of public health degree program. With both an MSN and an MPH, nurses will be uniquely positioned to implement advanced nursing practices into community-improving health initiatives. The staff at Johns Hopkins has extensive experience in all aspects of public health and nursing and dedicate time each year to mentor students in their chosen specialty. 

This ambitious program can be completed in as little as five semesters of full-time study or seven semesters if studying part-time. Students must travel to campus for the first eight-week summer term, but the remainder of their classes can be completed through online learning. To earn these degrees, students are required to complete 504 clinical practicum hours.  

  • Location: Baltimore, MD
  • Duration: 18 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $71,760 per year

How Long Does it Take to Become a Public Health Nurse?

The time it takes to become a public health nurse depends on the level of education pursued and the amount of experience needed. Generally speaking, public health nurses must complete at least an associate degree in nursing for entry-level work. However, other employers may require public health nurses to have completed a four-year bachelor’s and a two-year MSN.

How To Become a Public Health Nurse  – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

The first step toward a public health nursing career is completing high school or earning a GED. Aspiring public health nurses should focus on science and math classes to prepare them for additional studies. Advanced placement classes or college-level coursework can be particularly advantageous as students can earn college credit while still in high school, which reduces the number of courses required to earn a degree. 

Step 2: Complete a Nursing Program (One to Four Years)

Public health nurses must complete a nursing program. At a minimum, public health nurses will need to complete an associate’s degree, although employers increasingly require candidates to complete at least a bachelor’s. 

Nursing school is highly competitive, and admissions committees are looking for applicants who have completed prerequisite coursework and have demonstrated an aptitude for science and math. 

Step 3: Pass NCLEX (Timelines Vary)

All nurses in the US must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to be eligible for state licensure. More details on this exam are found in the certifications and licensure section below. 

Step 4: Apply for State Licensure (Timelines Varies)

To work in public health nursing, all nurses must have a valid license to practice in the state where they will be employed. More details on state licensure can be found in the certifications and licensure section below. 

Step 5: Complete Additional Education (Timelines Vary)

Public health nursing is a specialized subset of nursing. While it can be possible to work in this field by gaining on-the-job experience, some employers require candidates to have completed additional education such as an MSN or post-graduate certificate.

What Do Public Health Nurses Do?

Public health nurses’ primary task is to help improve the health of a community. They are employed in public health clinics, community centers, government organizations, research centers, hospitals, universities, international health agencies, and more. Duties will vary based on place of employment, but typical day-to-day tasks can include:

  • Conducting interviews, surveys, and questionnaires to gather data about community health
  • Analyzing collected data and drawing conclusions
  • Creating interventions to address deficiencies in community health
  • Implementing approved interventions
  • Advocating to local, state, and national governments to improve community health
  • Providing one-on-one care to at-risk patients 
  • Educating community members, organizations, schools, religious institutions, and nonprofits about community health initiatives and the impact they can have
  • Collaborating with healthcare professionals in the community

Public Health Nurse Certifications & Licensure

All public health nurses must be licensed as registered nurses (RNs) in the state in which they practice. While the requirements for licensure can vary from state to state, most states have similar requirements. For example, Oregon requires the following qualifications:

  • Pass the NCLEX exam
  • Complete an accredited nursing program
  • Pass a background check
  • Submit a complete application

The NCLEX exam is currently required to obtain a nursing license in all 50 states. To take this test, candidates must obtain authorization to test from their state nursing board. Once the authorization is received, candidates must pay the $200 exam fee and sit for the five-hour test. The number of questions required to complete the NCLEX will vary from candidate to candidate as this is an adaptive exam and questions change based on the test taker’s performance. 

Certification is a voluntary step for public health nurses but can help demonstrate competency in this unique field. The primary certification public health nurses can earn is the Certified in Public Health (CPE) designation from the National Board of Public Health Examiners. This certification is not exclusive to public health nurses and is open to anyone who has completed a combination of education and experience in this field. To be eligible, candidates must meet one of the following requirements:

  • Current student in a Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accredited program 
  • Graduate of a Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accredited program with a master’s or PhD 
  • Hold a bachelor’s degree and five years of work experience
  • Have a master’s degree and three years of work experience
  • Earn a graduate-level certificate in public health and have three years of work experience

How Much Do Public Health Nurses Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statics (May 2021), the 3,047,530 nurses in the United States earn $82,750 per year on average. There is no distinction for wages based on the type of nursing. The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $59,450
  • 25th percentile: $61,790
  • 50th percentile (median): $77,600
  • 75th percentile: $97,580
  • 90th percentile: $120,250

Public Health Nurse Career Alternatives

Here are some alternatives to a career as a public health nurse: 

Become a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants are medical professionals who work under the supervision of a physician but can perform many of the same duties. They can see patients, diagnose diseases, prescribe medications, refer to therapy, and manage treatments. Physician assistants can even work alongside doctors in operating rooms. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s of physician assistant studies (MPAS), a master’s of health services (MHS), or a master’s of medical science (MMSc)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA)

Become a Certified Nurse-Midwife

Certified nurse-midwives have advanced training in pregnancy, birth, newborns, and caring for women. While they can work independently in some states, they typically care for women in group clinics or hospitals. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Midwifery Certification Board (ACMB)

Become a Health Educator

Health educators can perform many of the same duties as public health nurses, minus any clinical responsibilities. They often work in public health offices or for government agencies to craft community intervention programs and then implement them through targeted education programs. Depending on the level of education, health educators can also participate in data gathering and analysis. 

  • Typical Education: Bachelor’s
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

Related Articles

  • 14 June 2022

    A Day in the Life of an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner – Expert Interview

    Nurse practitioners (NPs) play a crucial role in increasing access to high-quality healthcare for millions of Americans. While the majority of NPs still practice primary care, a growing number are choosing instead to practice acute care.

  • 18 November 2021

    Guide to Nursing Careers in Long-Term Care

    Geriatric nursing in long-term care can prove a rewarding career with many roles and room to grow. Nurses are the heart of long-term care and older adults are a unique population with whom to work.

  • 28 April 2021

    Nurses Month: An Expert’s Advocacy Guide for Those at the Heart of Healthcare

    This May is National Nurses Month, a time to reflect upon the crucial role that nurses play in the American healthcare system. The nation’s more than four million registered nurses (RNs) carry out a wide variety of services: performing physical exams, supplying health education, administering medications and personalized interventions, and coordinating care in collaboration with other health professionals.