What Is Community Nursing?

Community health nursing, also called public health nursing or community nursing, combines primary healthcare and nursing practice in a community setting. Community health (CH) nurses provide health services, preventive care, intervention and health education to communities or populations.

In the past, public health nurses worked for the government or the public health department. Their role has since expanded. In fact, some may not work directly with patients. The American Nurses Association (ANA), the Association of Public Health Nurses (APHN) and others use the definition of public health nursing coined by the American Public Health Association (APHA): “Public health nursing is the practice of promoting and protecting the health of populations using knowledge from nursing, social and public health sciences.”

APHA’s vision for public health nursing is “Advancing social justice and equity to achieve population health for all.” A core component of realizing this vision, and thus a fundamental goal of public and community health nursing, is eliminating longstanding inequities and disparities in health, health education and access to quality healthcare. In fact, this emphasis on addressing social determinants of health (SDOH) and health equity in the U.S. is the primary focus of The Future of Nursing 2020-2030 report from the National Academy Medicine (NAM).

What Do Community Health Nurses Do?

Unlike a nurse who works with patients one-on-one, public and community health nurses focus on communities. CH nurses can have various roles in a community setting. They may provide some or all of the following:

  • Health education
  • Community advocacy
  • Screening services
  • Preventative care
  • Ensuring a safe and healthy environment
  • Abuse and neglect prevention
  • Policy reform
  • Community development

What they do depends on the communities they serve; lower income, school and culturally diverse communities all have different needs. CH nurses also work for public health departments or parishes.

Community Health Nurse Specialties

A nurse working with lower income populations will evaluate their healthcare needs and then find free or low-cost services. They may cover some or all of these areas:

  • Disability identification and support
  • Pregnancy and infant care education and referrals
  • Child development assessments
  • Domestic violence support
  • Self-care, healthcare and nutrition education

Some cultures have customs that affect the care they wish to receive. Nurses must learn about the cultures they work with, building relationships and gaining trust within communities. Developing genuine cultural competence and understanding allows nurses to advocate for their community, ensuring cultural knowledge, beliefs, customs and experiences are respected and valued.

The healthcare workforce is becoming more diverse, which is one of the biggest changes in nursing — and a benefit to patients. Nurses with similar cultural backgrounds to the communities they serve may already understand structures of respect, communication and cultural values within the community. Plus, improving cultural representation in the healthcare workforce can help rebuild trust in healthcare systems, promote health equity and foster more diversity in the next generation of healthcare workers.

School Nurses Are Also Community Health Nurses

Another community health specialist is the school nurse. Children who do not feel well go to the school nurse and report their symptoms. If it turns out multiple students have the same illness, the nurse informs the school’s community that there is an illness going around, educates the community on the illness’ symptoms and gives advice on what to do. Some school nurses may also communicate with residents who live near the school to let them know about any trending illnesses or other public health issues.

Through their daily responsibilities and the larger local health initiatives and partnerships they work to support, school nurses play an important role in building healthy communities.

The Essential Skills and Competencies of Community Health Nurses

Community nurses rely on data and analysis to assess communities, create plans of action and establish procedures. The skills needed for such public health roles are outlined in the Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals (Core Competencies), developed and revised in 2021 by the Council on Linkages Between Academia and Public Health Practice.

The Core Competencies align with the 2020 revision of the 10 Essential Public Health Services (EPHS) framework, which focuses on removing “systemic and structural barriers that have resulted in health inequities” in order to achieve equity and “optimal health for all.” The Core Competencies are organized into eight domains of skills:

  • Data analytics/assessment
  • Policy development/program planning
  • Communication
  • Health equity
  • Community partnership
  • Public health sciences
  • Finance and management
  • Leadership and systems thinking

The core competency domains are broken down into subcompetencies organized in three tiers, representing “different types of responsibilities within public health organizations.” Tier 1 is front-line staff. Tier 2 is program management and supervision. Tier 3 is senior management.

What Education Do You Need to Be a Community Health Nurse?

CH nurses have the same qualifications as other licensed nurses. A CH nurse must be licensed as a registered nurse (RN). Some roles require the higher level of education and training that a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program can provide. The BSN integrates communications, analytics, scientific reasoning and culture, which correlate with the eight domains. RNs can earn this qualification through completing an online RN to BSN degree program.

In some cases, the job may require a Master of Science in Nursing. Those interested can meet this requirement through an online MSN program. These programs help students expand their clinical, theoretical, leadership, teaching and research skills. Some programs may also offer concentrations in areas such as administration or education. Plus, online nursing programs allow nurses to continue working while earning a degree.

The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the need to reinvest in America’s public health infrastructure. An essential component of this is rebuilding the community health nursing workforce. Working in community nursing takes patience, advanced communication skills, political savvy and organization. With great challenge comes great rewards, especially for those who work with culturally and socioeconomically diverse populations.

Learn about the Lamar University online RN to BSN program.


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