Public Health Nursing in the 21st Century

It's a sad fact, but some communities in America are not nearly as healthy as others. Whether it's an urban neighborhood or a rural town, some areas suffer from below-average health. There are a variety of reasons why this may be: low health literacy, a lack of health education, a lack of healthy food choices or their environment, to name a few. Fortunately, a public health nurse, sometimes also called a community health nurse, can help combat these inequities through community interventions.

What Do Public Health Nurses Do?

Public health nurses look at several factors when assessing the health needs of their community:

  • Socioeconomic status
  • Lifestyle
  • Health literacy level
  • Educational status
  • Environmental surroundings
  • Cultural influences and
  • Genetics

The term "community" can refer to prisons, universities, K-12 school districts, large and small cities, businesses, urban and rural areas. Public health nurses have flexibility in where they work, and they have various roles and responsibilities. Sometimes they act as advocates, requesting more resources for their community from the government or philanthropic organizations. Other times they serve as patient educators, participating in health fairs, school fairs and other community events. Public health nurses are also central to disaster relief or opioid crisis response efforts, for example, depending on the needs of their community. They are critical to recognizing and responding to potential health crises.

What Is the Role of Public Health Nurses in Health Promotion?

Regardless of which hat they are wearing, all public health nurses focus on health promotion.

Health promotion, as defined by the World Health Organization, is "the process of enabling people to increase their control over, and improve their health." This does not have to be only through formal channels — you can start informally with yourself and those closest to you. For example, your father may need information on a diabetes-friendly diet, while your outdoors-loving neighbor might benefit from information on skin cancer prevention and screening.

A primary focus of public health nurses is health education, often focusing on high-risk groups. For example, they may demonstrate ways to minimize fall risk at a senior center, explain proper nutrition for pre-natal care or provide resources for people caring for disabled family members. 

Why Is Diversity Awareness Important for Public Health Nurses?

To reach high-risk populations effectively, intercultural communication skills are necessary. Your community will have people from diverse backgrounds with different education levels, languages and cultural beliefs. It can be beneficial for a public health nurse to share the same cultural background or language as the community, as the shared experiences can jumpstart the nurse-patient relationship. Bilingual nurses are also a plus to public health nursing.

Public health nurses work often with large groups and community leaders where they must listen attentively and be sensitive to specific needs and resources — or lack of resources. The overall goal of public health nursing is better health for the community. To be successful, the public health nurse needs to partner with the community and work as a team, so a strong relationship is necessary.

How Can I Become a Public Health Nurse?

"Public health nurses comprise the largest segment of the professional public health workforce and serve in many different critical roles," says the Association of Public Health Nurses (APHN), but it recognizes that there is still a great need for qualified professionals. To become a public health nurse, the APHN suggests a strong clinical nursing background and knowledge from the public health and social sciences. Also, because public health nurses take charge in their respective communities when it comes to health, it is vital to have good communication and leadership skills.

As in all areas of nursing, public health nurses are in high demand, specifically in medically underserved and low-income communities. Do you have a passion for working with underserved communities? Do you possess strong coping skills, and understand the importance of self-care? If so, then public health nursing may be the career for you.

The University of Rhode Island online RN to BS in Nursing program includes a public health nursing course that focuses on the skills and knowledge you need to care for the people in your community, with a specific emphasis on high-risk and vulnerable populations. The curriculum also features a practicum course dedicated to public health nursing so that you can gain the hands-on experience you need to be most effective in your community.

Learn more about URI's online RN to BS in Nursing program.


Nurse Journal: Public Health Nursing + Careers, Salary & Jobs Outlook

World Health Organization: Health Promotion

Association of Public Health Nurses: What Is a PHN?

Minority Nurse: Thriving As a Nurse in Underserved Communities Public Health Nurse

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