Public Health Nurses and Physicians

Medical practitioners in the public health sector work with individual patients, but are also concerned with the health of the greater populations these individuals belong to. While public health physicians and public health nurses serve individuals and families, they work to examine public health issues and promote awareness community-wide.

According to the American College of Preventive Medicine, medical professionals in public health provide the leadership, management, education, and clinical interventions necessary to ensure public health services are available to specific populations. These medical professionals are unique in their field, as they are trained in both clinical medicine and public health. This means they possess the skills required to understand and reduce the risk of illness, disease, death, and disability in individuals and in populations.

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The work of public health medical practitioners involves monitoring the spread of disease and prevalence of health conditions by working not only with members of the public, but often with researchers and governmental agencies, as well. Their work often extends to conducting and health-related research and analyzing related data.

Whether nurses or physicains, medical professionals in public health provide patient care, conduct research, teach, and serve as program managers. They may work in primary care settings, for managed care organizations, in public health and other government agencies, or in academia.

Public Health Nurses

Public health nurses work with whole communities and care for entire populations, with a focus on primary prevention and health promotion. This type of nursing involves educating specific groups of people about health issues, improving community health and safety, and increasing access to healthcare.

Public health nurses understand and take into account that a person or community’s health is influenced by a number of factors, such as lifestyle, the environment, and genetic makeup. Armed with evidence and statistics unique to communities, they work to improve the health of people, prevent disease, and reduce illness through education and preventive medicine.

Their work involves:

  • Monitoring health trends and identifying health risk factors of specific communities
  • Overseeing health-related interventions unique to certain populations
  • Working alongside local, state, and federal governmental agencies to provide healthcare to underserved communities
  • Designing and implementing programs and disease prevention activities, such as health screenings, educational programs, and immunizations
  • Providing direct healthcare services to at-risk and underserved populations
  • Providing communities with reliable, useful information about how to protect their health
  • Giving presentations at schools, community groups, local groups, and senior centers about safety, early detection, and other important health issues

Public health nurses work for governmental agencies, nonprofit groups, community health centers, and other organizations aimed at improving the public health. These professionals may work alone or alongside other members of a medical team.

Public health nurses must also be able to collaborate and form effective partnerships with communities and populations as to address health and social conditions, and they must be able to implement innovative solutions that result in positive health outcomes. Today’s public health nurses are advocates for at-risk and underserved populations, and their work extends far beyond caring for the sick to encompass advocacy, health education, and even political reform, says the American Nurses Association.

How to Become a Public Health Nurse

Public health nursing is a population-focused practice that requires specific knowledge, competencies, and skills. Public health nurses have an understanding of advocacy, community organizing, political and social reform, and health education, thus allowing them to work with vulnerable populations in diverse settings.

Thus, public health nurses are typically required to possess advanced degrees and education and training in public health. More specifically, public health nurses often possess the Master of Nursing (MSN) and advanced study in public health through a Master of Public Health (MPH). A popular graduate program for nurses has been the dual MSN/MPH, which is often a joint collaboration between a school of nursing and a school of public health.

Students entering an MSN/MPH program must possess a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a current nursing license. Most programs require a competitive GPA and GRE scores for admission, and typical admission requirements include a demonstrated commitment to community work and the nursing practice.

The curriculum of an MSN/MPH program typically includes:

  • Philosophical and theoretical basis for nursing
  • Applications of research to practice
  • Context of healthcare for advanced practice nursing
  • Statistical literacy and reasoning in nursing research

Coursework specific to public health nursing often includes:

  • Population-based public health nursing interventions
  • Theory and practice of public health nursing
  • Public health nursing leadership and management
  • Program development and evaluation in healthcare

These programs often include about 500 clinical hours. Nurses who have already achieved their MSN may also purse an MPH and focus their study on a specialization of public health, such as:

  • Biostatistics
  • Environmental health
  • Epidemiology
  • Health policy and management
  • Social and behavioral sciences

Many public health nurses also choose to pursue professional certification by achieving the Advanced Public Health Nursing certification credential (APHN-BC) through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), a portfolio-based designation that is valid for a period of 5 years.

To qualify for the APHN-BC credential, applicants must possess a current and valid RN license, a graduate degree nursing or a graduate degree in public health and a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Applicants must also have completed at least 2,000 practice hours in advanced public health nursing in the past 3 years and have completed professional development through academic credits, presentations, publications, or professional service.

Public Health Physicians

Public health physicians, unlike primary care physicians, focus their work on the prevention of disease rather than the diagnosis and treatment of it. Their work is also focused more on communities and populations than individuals. Therefore, their job duties are distinctly different from that of their primary care counterparts. Public health physicians:

  • Teach medical students or conduct research at colleges and universities
  • Oversee health-related programs at the city, state, or federal level
  • Develop healthcare improvement and disease prevention initiatives
  • Educate the public and healthcare community
  • Treat patients in community clinics as to monitor the occurrence and spread of disease
  • Provide primary or ancillary care to patients suffering from a specific chronic illness or for patients who are from an underserved community or who are members of a high-risk group
  • Gather data and research as to analyze and assess public health issues, their causes, and their links to other issues in a specific population or community
  • Work alongside public health officials to develop legislation focused on improving the health and well-being of entire communities
  • Work on specific campaigns that support preventive care

How to Become a Public Health Physician

Although physicians in public health do not always need advanced degrees in public health, many pursue graduate work in public health, particularly if they have plans to enter more research-intensive fields of public health, such as epidemiology, biostatistics, and health policy and management.


A popular degree for medical students with aspirations of working in public health is the MD/MPH, a dual degree that is designed to give medical students an opportunity to increase their knowledge of population-based science.

An MD/MPH combines traditional MD preparation with a concentration in an area of public health, such as:

  • Environmental health
  • Epidemiology
  • Biostatistics
  • Health law
  • Human rights
  • Maternal and child health
  • Social and behavioral sciences

Students who are already enrolled in medical school often choose to complete an MPH Public Health Medicine program, and currently practicing physicians often choose to complete an executive MPH program, a program designed for professionals who already hold an advanced degree, such as an MD, DDS, PharmD, PhD, JD, etc. These types of professional programs often allow physicians to pursue study in concentrations such as global health or public health policy.

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