Transitioning from Hospital Nursing to a Public Health Career

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A nurse works on a computer in a hospital room.The contributions nurses make to health care cannot be overstated. As the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) notes:

  • Nurses represent the biggest segment of the health care workforce.
  • Nurses work in nearly every type of health care organization.

The AACN also notes that more than half of registered nurses work in hospitals, and nurses provide the majority of hospital care. Working as a hospital nurse can certainly be rewarding. However, hospital nursing also comes with challenges, including potentially high levels of stress and burnout. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the American Nurses Foundation, 27% of hospital nurses were planning to leave their positions.

One way a hospital nurse can chart a new course is to move into a public health career. Working in public health can enable hospital nurses to apply their valuable expertise and experience in new ways that can have a profound effect on community health. Hospital nurses who may be considering enrolling in an online Master of Public Health degree program can benefit from learning what working in public health entails and how to transition into a career in public health.

Contrasting Hospital Nursing with a Career in Public Health

The American Public Health Association (APHA) provides a good comparison of a career in a clinical setting (such as hospital nursing) and a career in public health.

  • Working in a clinical setting involves addressing the health issues of a single person. In other words, health care professionals in clinical settings help individual patients improve their personal health.
  • Working in public health involves improving the health of a population of people in, for example, a community, county, or state. Public health professionals aim to reduce exposure to health risks and ensure populations have access to health care.

The Responsibilities of Hospital Nurses

Broadly speaking, the responsibilities of a hospital nurse often include:

  • Administering medication
  • Monitoring patients’ vital signs
  • Preparing patients for medical procedures
  • Communicating information about patients’ conditions to other health care professionals
  • Educating patients about their health conditions

Of course, the particular clinical area in which a nurse works will determine other specific responsibilities. For example:

  • Nurses who work in intensive care provide services to patients who have very serious conditions and patients on life support.
  • Nurses who work in an emergency room help stabilize patients and address urgent health needs.
  • Nurses who work in a neonatal unit offer care to monitor the development of newborns.

The Responsibilities of Working in Public Health

The APHA outlines essential public health services that parallel the responsibilities of working in public health. For example, a career in public health can entail duties such as:

  • Monitoring and assessing the health of a specific population
  • Investigating the causes of health hazards
  • Educating the public about health matters
  • Developing public health policies
  • Promoting equitable access to health care
  • Maintaining an effective public health infrastructure

Transitioning from Hospital Nursing to Public Health

Hospital nurses who want to make the move to public health have a number of options for how they can enter the field.

Become a Public Health Nurse

One of the most direct routes for hospital nurses to move into public health is to become a public health nurse. Public health nurses work in settings such as schools, community health clinics, or health departments. Their responsibilities often include:

  • Serving on teams that carry out immunization programs
  • Identifying the potential health risks to a population by conducting data analysis
  • Educating other medical professionals regarding trends in community health
  • Promoting awareness of issues in community health
  • Preparing for outbreaks of disease and coordinating with public officials on creating response plans

Pursue a Master of Public Health Degree

Earning a master’s in public health can open up an array of career options for hospital nurses who aspire to work in public health. A graduate degree in public health can provide expertise in areas such as:

  • Biostatistics
  • Data analysis
  • Environmental Health
  • Epidemiology
  • Health care economics
  • Health policy

Earn Certifications

Another strategy for moving from hospital nursing into a public health career is to pursue a certification. For example:

  • The National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the Certified in Public Health (CPH) credential, which demonstrates skills and knowledge in public health.
  • The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) offers the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential, which demonstrates expertise in health education.

Pursuing a Particular Public Health Career

Public health is a diverse field, offering several different career paths hospital nurses can pursue.


Epidemiologists research disease patterns and strive to reduce the risk of disease. They conduct studies designed to prevent disease, analyze data to identify the causes of diseases, and communicate with policymakers regarding their findings.

Public Health Educator

Public health educators create and manage programs to educate communities about health conditions. Examples of their responsibilities include assessing a population’s health needs, identifying emerging issues in health, and implementing health education interventions.

Health Policy Analyst

Health policy analysts craft policies to address issues in public health. They analyze health statistics, determine the costs and benefits associated with potential policies, and propose policies to government officials and other groups.

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

An occupational health and safety specialist helps to ensure workplace safety, taking steps to minimize health risks to workers as well as to the public and the environment. To accomplish this, they perform inspections, create policies and procedures to protect workers from harm, and identify the causes of workplace accidents.

Building on Nursing Expertise to Make a Difference in Public Health

The expertise of hospital nurses can be quite valuable when applied to a career in public health. Their years of experience in a clinical setting equip them well to contribute to a field that improves the health of entire populations.

Individuals who have an interest in working in public health should explore the Regis College online Master of Public Health degree program to learn how it can help them achieve their career goals. With concentrations in epidemiology and health policy and management, the program provides a solid foundation for working in public health.

Start pursuing your public health career goals today.

Recommended Readings

Exploring MPH Career Outcomes

Public Health Job Outlook and Salary

What Can You Do with an MPH?


American Association of Colleges of Nurses, Nursing Fact Sheet

American Nurses Foundation, “Pulse of the Nation’s Nurses Survey Series: Mental Health and Wellness”

American Public Health Association, 10 Essential Public Health Services

American Public Health Association, “Public Health vs. Clinical Health Professions: What’s the Difference?”

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

Indeed, “How to Become Policy Analyst in 5 Steps (Plus Job Duties)”

Indeed, Nurse Duties and Responsibilities (in 10 Specialties)

National Board of Public Health Examiners, Candidate Handbook, CPH Certified in Public Health

National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, CHES Exam

National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Health Education Responsibilities

National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, “How to Become a Health Education Specialist”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians