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Population Health Nursing: What It Is and How to Make It Your Career

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Jan 22, 2024
Nurses meet with public health officials around a conference table.

Population Health Nursing: What It Is and How to Make It Your Career

When picturing nurses, many people envision them involved in one-on-one patient care in a hospital or health care facility. However, many nurses do the crucial work of protecting entire communities from communicable diseases, disability, and other health threats.

The practice of overseeing the health of an entire community or region is known as population health nursing. Health care professionals in this field are heavily involved in preventing new influenza strains and COVID-19 variants and mitigating the spread of infectious diseases by keeping the public informed and providing resources to underserved communities.

Nurses who wish to pursue roles outside of patient care may find population health nursing to be particularly rewarding, as it serves a critical role in safeguarding communities. However, public health nurses must have the right skill set and education to be effective. Earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is preferred for many population health nursing roles. 

What Is Population Health Nursing?

One thing that makes population health nursing unique is that it is proactive rather than reactive. Most nurses working directly with patients in health care facilities must react to the medical scenarios they encounter. In population health nursing, on the other hand, nurses are focused on mitigating health risks through education and preparation.

For example, during flu season, public health nurses focus on educating members of the community about the benefits of flu shots, where they can get them, and the best way to handle the flu if they get infected. Of course, population health nursing isn’t exclusively focused on the prevention of communicable diseases. It follows a systematic process that:

  1. Assesses the health and health care needs of a population
  2. Identifies groups and subpopulations that will benefit most from health care promotion initiatives
  3. Determines what health scenarios pose the highest risk to the population
  4. Develops an intervention plan should the population be impacted by a health threat
  5. Implements the plan when the population is impacted by a health threat
  6. Evaluates the effectiveness of the implemented plan
  7. Uses data to further refine the plan and help other public health nurses

What Does a Public Health Nurse Do?

Public health nurses are deeply involved in their communities and personally invested in community members’ health and wellness. Of course, not all communities are the same nor do they all face the same threats. While a public health nurse in Florida may be concerned with the prevention of skin cancer, another nurse in Michigan may focus their efforts on the availability of clean water.

However, all public health nurses share a commitment to protecting the population they oversee through education, awareness, and planning. A public health nurse may take on any of the following duties:

  • Researching and evaluating public health trends and risk factors
  • Performing public outreach and working with community members to develop public policies and health promotion tactics that decrease health risks
  • Performing assessments to determine what additional resources are needed
  • Serving as subject matter experts in interdisciplinary programs designed to monitor and respond to public health threats
  • Providing the community with educational resources about public health risks and information about how to respond in the event of a public health crisis

How to Enter the Field of Population Health Nursing

A career in population health nursing requires the right education, experience, and certifications. Typically, aspiring public health nurses can complete the journey in the following five steps:

  1. First, individuals must earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, pass the NCLEX-RN, and become licensed as a registered nurse (RN).

  2. Nurses then need to gain on-the-job experience as a clinical nurse.

  3. While it is optional, many nurses find earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree to be valuable to their career progression in the field of population health nursing.

  4. Nurses should explore obtaining a relevant certification, such as the certified public health (CPH) or national healthcare disaster certification (NHDP-BC) credential offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. This step is also optional, but certifications illustrate that candidates have the skills and knowledge to enter the field of population health nursing.

  5. With the right combination of education, experience, and credentialing, nurses can stand out to employers as they apply for public health nursing positions.

Start Your Career in Population Health Nursing

Population health nursing is a critical field in modern medicine, as the world witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The important work that public health nurses do ensures that communities are informed about potential health risks and how to respond if they are affected. 

Nurses who are interested in steering their careers from clinical work to population health nursing should explore the online MSN program offered by The University of Tulsa. The program is designed to support career-minded individuals who aspire to rise through the ranks of the health care system. TU MSN students complete a core nursing curriculum consisting of courses such as Advanced Theoretical Frameworks of Nursing, Research and Evidence-Based Practice, and Health Care Policy. 

Next, they select a specialty that aligns with their career goals. Those interested in a career in population health nursing should consider TU’s Public Health Global Vision track, which includes courses such as Population Health and Epidemiology and culminates in a capstone project.

Learn more about how earning an MSN from The University of Tulsa can support your professional aspirations of a career in population health nursing.

Recommended Readings

A Nurse Educator’s Role in the Future of Nursing

How to Become an APRN

The Most Important Leadership Skills for Nurses


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, About Population Health Nursing

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Population Health Nursing

American Nurse Journal, “Nursing and the Evolution of Population Health”

American Nurses Association, Public Health Nursing

Association of Public Health Nurses, What Is a PHN?

Campaign for Action, “Population Health Models and the Profession of Nursing”, Public Health Nurse

Indeed, “How to Become a Public Health Nurse in 5 Steps”

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, Definition of Public Health Nursing

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, Role of Public Health Nurses

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