Nurses play an invaluable role within the healthcare field. They treat patients who are sick and injured, as well as educate patients – and the general public – about various health conditions. In the end, they are more than their title implies. Nurses are caregivers, teachers, advisors, and advocates, both for their patients and those around them.
It’s clear that the nursing profession is multi-dimensional. Because in addition to their varying job duties, there are also a variety of career options you can pursue within the field. Two of the most popular and rewarding career paths are the hospital nurse and the public health nurse. These nurses have very distinct roles, yet share the common goal of making a difference in others’ lives.
If you are debating between the career of public health nurse or hospital nurse, read on. We explore the job duties, the workplace environments, and the educational paths as they relate to each career.
What’s the Difference Between a Hospital Nurse and Public Health Nurse?
A hospital nurse is a registered nurse (RN) that works in a hospital setting. They work directly with patients who are injured, ill, and disabled. They work with patients individually, but typically handle multiple cases at a time. Depending on their department, hospital nurses may treat patients in emergency, life-threatening situations, or work with those facing chronic conditions, such as cancer or heart disease.
A public health nurse, on the other hand, is a nurse that works within larger communities. Rather than treating individual patients, they care for an entire population and work to protect its greater health. This may involve teaching the community about potential health issues, promoting good nutrition, safety, and hygiene, and increasing the community’s access to care.
Public Health Nurse vs. Hospital Nurse: Job Duties
As one might expect, the role of a hospital nurse consists mostly of clinical duties. Hospital nurses are responsible for evaluating and treating patients. This involves checking patient vital signs, assessing patient symptoms, performing lab tests, administering medication, and coordinating treatment plans. Hospital nurses may also provide counseling to patients, educating them (and their families) on treatment regimens or proper healthcare.
Public health nurses do not wait for patients to come to them with an illness. Rather, they go into communities to prevent disease or help improve the population’s health. On a regular basis, public health nurses can be found directing healthcare resources, providing screening services for patients, delivering vaccines and immunizations, running blood drives, and educating the people about health-related topics. They may also be found identifying risk factors within their community, monitoring trends of illness and injury, and implementing health education campaigns to keep the community safe.
For hospital nurses, the main focus of their job is to treat patients; to save and to improve lives in that moment of time. Public health nurses, on the other hand, focus on the long-haul—offering services that will help improve the health of an entire population over time.
Public Health Nurse vs. Hospital Nurse: Workplaces
Hospital nurses, as you might expect, can be found in hospitals. They may work in state, local, or private hospital settings. This is not the end of your workplace options, however. Within the hospital, there are many different departments in which you can work. For example, you may choose to work in the Emergency Room (ER), the critical care unit, or even the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). You may also work in pain management, oncology, rheumatology, radiology, or post-anesthesia care. Learn more about the different specializations you can find within the hospital nursing field.
Public health nurses can work in a variety of settings with a community focus. They may be found in community health clinics, homeless shelters, schools, senior centers, community groups, or even abroad, with at-risk populations. They may also work for government agencies, non-profit groups, and other small businesses/organizations. Sometimes, public health nurses are given the opportunity to travel and bring healthcare to underserved communities.
How to Get Started in Either Career Path
Both public health nurses and hospital nurses are licensed, registered nurses (RNs), meaning the educational requirements for these roles, in many ways, overlap.
To become a hospital nurse, you must earn your RN licensure. And in order to pursue this, you must have a college degree. An associate degree in nursing (ADN) is the standard, minimum expectation in the field, although many employers today prefer nurses with a Bachelor’s in Nursing (BSN) degree. Either degree will make you eligible to take the NCLEX-RN examination. Upon passing this board exam, you will become licensed to practice as a nurse. Note that certain career paths within the hospital setting – for example, oncology or neonatal nursing – may require a bachelor’s degree or higher.
To become a public health nurse, you must also have a college degree and your RN license in hand. Many public health employers today, however, are seeking nurses with advanced levels of education and/or specific classes within this sector of nursing. Some BSN degree curriculums will cover topics in public health nursing, as well as relevant subjects like patient advocacy and healthcare policy. Master’s degree programs, such as Goodwin’s MSN, also cover topics in public and population health.
At Goodwin University, nursing school students can look forward to both clinical and public health topics. The associate degree curriculum covers clinical nursing topics needed to become a hospital nurse, such as:
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Nursing Skill Development
- Adults and the Wellness Continuum
- Integration of Nursing Practice
For those who wish to advance their education, the RN-to-BSN degree program offers topics in both clinical and public health, including courses such as:
- Ethics in Public Health
- Health and Social Issues in Aging
- Introduction to Nursing Research
- Health Assessment
- Healthcare Policy and Advocacy
- Public and Community Health Nursing
Ultimately, the career path you choose will depend on your interests and goals. Do you wish to work with patients in a clinical setting, or do you have goals to help larger communities in need?
There is no doubt that the roles of a public health nurse and a hospital nurse are incredible and impactful. With every day that goes by, these nurses are working to make a difference. One nurse is fighting off illnesses, repairing injuries, and enabling patients to live their lives again. The other nurse is teaching communities how to stay healthy, protecting them against disease outbreaks, and ensuring they have access to quality healthcare services. Whether you choose to become a public health nurse or hospital nurse, there is no wrong answer.
To learn about the nursing and public health curriculums available at Goodwin University, please do not hesitate to contact us. You may call 800-889-3282 for more information, or reach us online here.
Goodwin University is a nonprofit institution of higher education and is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), formerly known as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Goodwin University was founded in 1999, with the goal of serving a diverse student population with career-focused degree programs that lead to strong employment outcomes.