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What is Public Health Nursing?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Public health nursing is a nursing specialty which focuses on providing nursing services which benefit public health. In addition to working with individual patients, public health nurses also target nursing services to specific populations, offering education, preventive care, and other services to their communities to promote general wellness and prevention of disease and injury. This career also involves the formulation of healthcare policy and public health initiatives, all of which are focused on making the community as healthy as possible.

People who pursue a career in public health nursing may start in nursing school, but they also receive training in issues like healthcare policy and social services. Since public health nurses must consider the community as a whole, they learn how to identify at-risk populations, and they think about issues which may confront their community, such as access to clean water, safe working conditions, and nutrition. An important part of the field of public health nursing is the recognition that numerous factors contribute to health, so simply addressing obvious medical problems is not enough.

Many governments provide funding to public health nursing, recognizing that populations are happier, more efficient, and more productive when they are healthy. These funds can be used to support public health clinics and a variety of services offered by public health nurses, such as inspections of public facilities to see if they meet the health code, and school outreach programs.

A public health nurse may work in a public health clinic, offering free or low cost medical treatment to low-income individuals. This treatment might include routine vaccinations, physical exams, and similar services. Public health clinics also often offer education classes in nutrition, baby care, and other issues which pertain to public health, and they may have mental counseling services, group therapy for substance abusers, and other services which address the needs of the community.

It is also possible to work in health care policy as a public health nurse, designing policy and campaigns for the community's health. Public health nurses may set guidelines for workplace safety and assist regulatory agencies in enforcing these guidelines, and develop educational programs, advertisement campaigns, and other forms of community outreach to make public health a priority. Policymaking in public health nursing also involves discussions about the specific needs of the community, as for instance in a city where there is a large homeless population which may need special attention from public health nurses and social services agencies. Public health nurses often work closely with several social service agencies to serve their communities.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Illych — On May 26, 2011

@softener - You'll need to get what’s known as a BSN qualification to work in public health nursing, which is studying for four years at a university. In some states, you can get a public health nurse certificate in addition to the nursing license you receive from completing your BSN. It’d also be a good idea to minor in health science; the more education you get the better chance you’ll have of advancing your career and staying in community health. It’s hard work, but if it’s what you want to do I say go for it.

By softener — On May 25, 2011

What is the general pathway for getting public health nursing education? It seems like most places won’t hire without experience.

By goldenmist — On May 23, 2011

@lapsed - I’d recommend volunteering at a free clinic or anywhere in the public health arena. I volunteered at a student staffed clinic while I was still in nursing school and it really opened my eyes to the different opportunities available in nursing besides bedside nursing, which I imagine is what you’re doing currently. There are so many different nursing jobs available, trying something else for a while might encourage you to go in a different direction.

By lapsed — On May 22, 2011

I’m at nursing school and while I like being able to help people and feeling like I’m making a positive difference, I really hate the paperwork (although I guess any job will have that) but mostly I can’t stand how anxious and on edge it makes me.

My grades are good though, so that’s not really an issue. Can anyone offer any advice on whether I might like a public health nursing job any better? Immunization clinics, education, disease prevention, baby care, dealing with substance abusers - all of these things interest me, but maybe I’m just not cut out to be a nurse.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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