The field known as public health is an effort to promote, maintain, preserve and improve the health of large populations. This general term includes numerous wide-ranging initiatives to ensure public health, including disease prevention, life prolongation and citizen education. While traditional medical care treats individuals, the entire population of a community or a society is considered to be the patient of public health professionals and their activities. Additionally, while much of medicine is concerned with cure, public health concentrates on education and prevention, such as vaccination programs, and is applied to delivering a cure only in times of widespread outbreak of an infectious disease.
Public health nurses work with cities, towns and other communities to promote the optimal health of their citizens. The functions of a public health nurse can include public education, first aid, and general health screenings and immunizations. A master’s degree or an RN (Registered Nurse) degree is usually a prerequisite for a career as a public health nurse.
In order to specialize in public health nursing, one must first earn a Registered Nurse degree. This usually requires a two- to four-year course of study which results in one of three initial nursing degrees: an Associate of Science Degree in Nursing (ADN), the end result of a two-year program offered by nearly 850 community and junior colleges around the country; a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing (BSN), a four-year course of study currently offered by more than 674 accredited colleges with nursing programs; or a Registered Nurse degree from an RN Diploma Program, often referred to as a “hospital diploma,” which is a specialized program that lasts about three years.
In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, once the student has graduated from an approved nursing program, he or she must then pass the NCLEX, a national examination, in order to obtain a nursing license. In addition to passing the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination), a national standard exam, nurses must be licensed by the state in which they will practice. Although requirements vary from state to state, licensed graduates of any of these three degree programs for the most part qualify for entry-level positions as staff nurses as well as many other positions. There are also numerous opportunities to move beyond these basic degree programs, as about 417 nursing schools currently offer master’s degrees in nursing, and 93 offer doctoral degrees.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2004, about 2.4 million people were employed as registered nurses, making this the single largest occupation in the healthcare field. Nearly 60 percent of RNs were employed in hospitals.
According to the Department of Labor, employment of registered nurses is expected to grow “much faster than average for all occupations” during the upcoming decade. Due to the large number of nursing jobs that will be created, registered nurses are predicted to create the second largest number of new jobs among all occupations in the U.S. Job opportunities for registered nurses in all specialties will be excellent, to the point that the industry is even now experiencing difficulty attracting and retaining an adequate number of RNs.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicate that the median annual salary of registered nurses in all specialties in 2004 was $52,330, with a range running from less than $37,300 to a high of more than $74,760. The highest median wages were paid by employment services ($63,170) and hospitals ($53,450).