RN-MSN Programs as a Path to Becoming a Public Health Nurse

Public health nurses, as major contributors to the healthcare system, work to improve population-based outcomes as to enable all members of society to lead healthy lives.

Public health nurses contribute to the improvement of population-based health outcomes by promoting early detection of common diseases and by providing reliable health and safety information to the populations they serve. The principal goal of public health nursing is that the services provided—nursing assessment, intervention, and evaluation—are focused on a population, not on individuals.

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As such, public health nurses may focus their practice on gender or age, ethnic or cultural groups, specific diseases (AIDS, diabetes), or specific conditions (obesity), among others. Public health nursing, also often referred to as community health nursing, addresses issues of social justice through:

  • Advocacy
  • Policy development
  • Planning

This multi-level view of health, which includes applying theory and evidence in community settings, is guided by the American Nurses Association’s Public Health Nursing: Scope & Standards of Practice and the Quad Council of Public Health Nursing Organizations’ Core Competencies for Public Health Nurses.

In general, the practice of public health nursing includes:

  • A focus on the needs of an entire population (and sub-populations)
  • An assessment of population health using a comprehensive and systematic approach
  • Attention to a number of health determinants
  • An emphasis on primary prevention
  • The application of nursing interventions at all levels


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Public health nurses focus their profession on improving the outcomes of populations, which includes applying their clinical knowledge and expertise using an ecological perspective. These nursing professionals acknowledge the complexity of today’s public health problems and the contextual nature of health, which is influenced by cultural, historical, environmental, physical, and social factors.

The strategies used by public health nurses affect entire communities; therefore, their work involves understanding the issues that affect an entire group of people or community.

The practice of public health nurses is grounded in both prevention and social justice as to eliminate inequality and to ensure healthcare is attainable to all. In other words, public health nurses identify the root of a problem and the steps they can take to prevent or remedy it. Just a few of the social determinants of health considered by public health nurses include:

  • Poverty
  • Education
  • Housing
  • Racism
  • Access to quality health care

The work of public health nurses may have a significant impact on populations. For example, they may work to reduce obesity in a community by improving access to healthy food, or they may focus their work on improving pregnancies and birth outcomes by providing access to preventive prenatal care.

How to Become a Public Health Nurse Leader

Public health nurses are typically registered nurses (RNs), who have completed a pre-licensure nursing diploma, Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and have achieved state licensure as an RN. However, public health nurse leaders—those serving in management and supervisory positions—often possess graduate degrees in public health nursing.

The Quad Council of Public Health Nursing Organizations’ Core Competencies for Public Health Nurses outlines three, major professional tiers for public health professionals. While Tier 1 apply to public health professionals who are called upon to carry out the daily responsibilities of public health organizations, the two upper-level tiers are focused on management, supervisory, and executive-level public health professionals:

Tier 2: Public health nurses at the management or supervisory levels are responsible for developing, implementing, and evaluating programs; providing technical expertise; establishing and maintaining community partnerships; supervising staff; and making policy recommendations.

Tier 3: Public health nurses at the senior management or executive levels oversee major programs or operations within a public health organization. Their work also includes setting a strategy and vision for the organization, creating a culture of quality within the organization, and working with the community improve health.

RN to MSN Programs for Public Health Nurses

Public health nurses in supervisory and management positions generally possess a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a focus on public health nursing. In addition to traditional MSN programs in public health nursing, RN to MSN programs in public health nursing are becoming commonplace among both campus-based and online universities.

RN to MSN programs in public health nursing are designed specifically for practicing RNs who want to focus their graduate study on improving the health of diverse, often underserved populations.

RN to MSN programs allow nurses to complete both their BSN and MSN through a blended program that takes into account previous education and RN experience as to satisfy many of the undergraduate requirements. Therefore, many RN to MSN programs can be completed in 2 to 3 years.

In addition to possessing a current and unencumbered RN license, most programs require students to meet specific GPA requirements, to possess previous RN or community service experience, and to demonstrate a commitment to the nursing practice and scholarly pursuit through the completion of a personal essay or interview.

RN to MSN in Public Health Nurse: Curriculum Design and Structure

The curriculum and clinical experiences of an RN to MSN program in public health nursing allow students to attain public health nursing leadership positions in clinical settings, health education, program development, consultation, and administration.

Public health nursing master’s degrees prepare students to:

  • Work in primary prevention, illness prevention, and health promotion
  • Design and deliver nursing services for diverse communities through nursing, public health, and health policy
  • Specialize in community health nursing, where they may work in staff development, consultation, or leadership positions
  • Practice in a variety of settings, including federal and state agencies, community groups, local and state health departments, schools, and non-profit agencies

Many MSN programs in public health nursing also allow students to focus their graduate nursing program on a specific area, such as nurse-midwifery and general public health studies.

Graduate curriculum requirements of an RN to MSN program often include study in:

  • Philosophical, theoretical, and ethical basis for nursing
  • Applications of research to practice
  • Statistical literacy and reasoning in nursing research
  • Environmental health/Epidemiology
  • Population-based public health nursing interventions
  • Theory and practice of public health nursing

Public health nursing capstone experiences address the application of principles and theories of leadership, management, and evaluated in public health nursing. These experiences, which are mentored, are focused on leadership and evaluation skills development, with students generally expected to complete a program of clinical experience with a public health-related agency.

Professional Certification in Public Health Nursing

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers the ANCC Advanced Pubic Health Nursing board certification through a portfolio assessment. Individuals must complete eligibility requirements and successfully pass the portfolio process to be awarded the APHN-BC designation.

Eligible candidates must submit an online portfolio of evidence that documents their specialized knowledge, skills, understanding, and application of professional nursing practice and theory. To qualify for this designation, candidates must possess a current and unencumbered RN license, have at least two years of experience as an RN, and possess one of the following:

  • Graduate degree in nursing; OR
  • Graduate degree in public health and a master’s in nursing

Candidates must also possess at least 2,000 practice hours in a specialty area of advanced public health nursing in the past 3 years and have completed at least 30 hours of continuing education in advanced public health nursing in the past 3 years.

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