Consider your last visit to a doctor’s office or emergency room. Whether it was delivering your second baby, getting your father’s blood pressure checked, or removing a fish hook from your son’s eye brow as a result of a scout camp blunder, chances are a nurse helped you better cope with the experience. It’s what we do, and it’s part of what attracts new students to this profession every year.

All nursing fields are in need of smart, caring, dedicated people, but one field, in high demand but often overlooked, is public health. While more community-based rather than focused on individual care, the public health realm is ideal for nurses who enjoy designing cause-driven contributions in health care services within communities. It’s not glamorous, but the work is incredibly gratifying.

If you love the idea of working in the health care profession, but find yourself leaning toward the research, social cause side of health, here are four reasons why being a public health nurse is a great career choice.

1. Provide help where it is most needed.

As of 2014, 15% of the country’s population lives in rural areas, and many of these communities lack proper health care resources. Studies show that the per capita rate of primary care physicians is lower in rural areas of the country with 40 physicians per 100,000 rural Americans compared to the 53.3 physicians available in urban and suburban areas.

However, the need for services in these areas is much higher. Rural residents are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression, drug abuse, and viral outbreaks. Also, these communities need education on social and lifestyle changes that can influence drug abuse, child neglect, and self-sufficiency challenges.

2. Create positive inroads within local communities.

Whether it’s addressing high rates of drug addiction, unplanned pregnancy, hunger, or even suicide, it’s moments like these that remind us why we chose this profession in the first place. Being a public health nurse fosters our desire to help people and make a positive impact. “The community-based interventions used by public health nurses have amazing reach and impact,” says Marni Storey, BSN, MS. “Almost every strategy has potential to improve multiple health outcomes.”

Storey referred to campaigns such as improving prenatal care or reducing child abuse and neglect as examples of the positive influence a public health nurse generates. For example, by building awareness and providing resources to address these challenges, you are also increasing the likelihood of the parents’ economic success, the child’s success in school and future employment, and reducing future risks for depression, substance abuse, and chronic conditions like obesity and heart disease.

3. Take part in progressive research.

Not all nursing roles are seen by the public. In many cases, a nurse’s greatest influence happens behind the scenes, particularly in matters of research. In this field, you are developing an understanding of an entire community to uncover solutions to social challenges.

“Using epidemiology and research, we are developing and testing interventions that address social determinants of health,” says Storey. “Prevention at this level means addressing problems by asking ourselves what is the root cause of the problem, and how can we prevent it.” Unlike other nursing fields where patients come and go, a public health nurse witnesses transformation within communities on a regular basis. And that is extremely gratifying.

4. Be part of the movement toward health education and prevention.

When the Zika virus outbreak made national news, most people figured it was an issue limited to other countries. But, in fact, there was 36,986 symptomatic Zika virus disease cases reported in the U.S. territories. While doctors find solutions to control further outbreaks of Zika and other global threats to our health, it’s up to the public health sector to build awareness of the risks and educate communities on preventative measures.

Many believe that the trend in health care will shift from illness treatment to health education and prevention. According to Nurse Journal, “the profession is going to start to play an even bigger role in ensuring that the well stay well and the sick get better.” That means the role of a public health nurse will expand to accommodate these exciting new ventures, particularly in the rural communities.

So, you may not see a public health nurse star in a dramatic TV series anytime soon, but the positive work carried out by public health is transforming the lives of communities every day. And that performance is worthy of a lifetime achievement award — minus the red carpet and paparazzi, of course.

Melissa Popovich

Melissa Popovich, DNP, RN, CNE, is the program director of the RN-to-BSN degree program and director of corporate business development at Ameritech College of Healthcare.

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