Public Health vs Nursing

There are so many master’s degrees to choose from if your interests lie in healthcare. One degree is the Master in Public Health (MPH), but you could also opt to advance your nursing career and complete the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). As their names suggest, the MPH focuses on public health, whereas the MSN focuses on the practice of nursing. That being said, most MSN degrees now include public health components either as a specialization, or even as part of their core curriculum. Similarly, MPH degrees may have a focus on the role of nurses in society. This means that, regardless of which degree you choose, you will always be able to combine your personal passions for serving public health and the nursing profession as a whole.

The Master in Public Health Degree

The MPH degree has a very strong focus on public health in practice, emphasizing improved health outcomes across entire populations through education and disease prevention. There is little to no emphasis on research or teaching. Rather, you will likely end up working in the field, in an organization that focuses on public health. This can be within the public or private sector, as well as in nonprofit organizations and NGOs. You may, within those organizations, work as a researcher, but it is more common that your focus will be on working directly with population groups facing certain health problems within their community. Others, however, become number crunchers, working in a government agency’s office to ensure the statistics behind public health are relevant and used to improve outcomes.

Generally speaking, the MPH degree is regarded as the highest professional credential that can be obtained by people in the public health sector. If your career goal is to take on a top level position within public health, working for local, state, federal, or even international governments or within health organizations, this is the degree for you.

As part of your curriculum, you will usually have to complete a number of core courses, such as:

  • Epidemiology
  • Environmental health sciences
  • Social and behavioral aspects of health
  • Health care systems and financing
  • Program evaluation
  • Biostatistics
  • Law and ethical issues in public health
  • Qualitative and quantitative research methods

Many schools now also offer MPH degrees with certain specialization areas. This is because public health is now such a wide and varied field, that there is a real need for people for more focused skills and knowledge.

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In general, it will take you two years to complete your MPH degree, although some schools now offer accelerated programs, enabling you to complete it within 12 to 18 months. Because schools recognize that many of those interested in this degree are working professionals, some now also offer the program part time, through distance learning, or online.

The Master of Science in Nursing Degree

The MSN degree is a very different degree, but there is some overlap with the MPH because you can also start a career in public health if you hold an MSN. However, your role will be more to lead and manage within professional nursing practice in medical centers, hospitals, community clinics, and so on. You will also generally be expected to choose a specialization within your MSN degree. Common specializations include:

  • Family primary care
  • Adult and geriatric primary care
  • Pediatric primary care
  • Public health nursing
  • Health systems management

The focus of an MSN curriculum is usually on nursing as a process, integrating elements of clinical medical knowledge and incorporating concepts of behavioral science. You will be trained to become a researcher in nursing theory, nursing practice, and their applications.

With an MSN degree, you will be able to continue to serve as a nurse in the community, although some end up moving outside of the actual practice, focusing instead on management.

What About Public Health Nursing?

One of the reasons why some people are confused about the difference between the MPH and the MSN is because of the MSN with public health nursing concentration. This degree does indeed provide a tremendous overlap between the two degrees but is, at its heart, a nursing practice degree.

As a public health nurse, you will work directly in the community with the aim to improve the overall health of that community. You will usually find employment with state or local health departments, correctional facilities, public health departments, businesses, occupational health facilities, and schools. Your role will be to devise and implement plans that eliminate or at least alleviate health and safety problems within communities. Some areas that you may focus on include obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, and immunizations. Additionally, you may focus on emergency and disaster preparedness, as well as assisting in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Some of the duties of a public health nurse include working with community youths, working inside public health clinics, and educating the community. It is a multifaceted role in which you will have direct patient contact, but you will work independently. You will also often have to hold presentations in health clinics, community centers, schools, and senior living facilities for instance, in order to educate other health care professionals and the community about disease prevention.

MSN/MPH Dual Degree

Because there is such an overlap between the MSN with a public health concentration in particular and the MPH, a number of schools have now started to offer the MSN/MPH dual degree. This program is designed to teach how to solve community health problems, often focusing on underserved communities. Graduates are highly sought after in leadership positions in administration, consultation, program development, and health education.

Those who enroll in the MSN/MPH programs are usually asked to choose whether their main emphasis will be on nurse practitioner programs or on public health programs. With the first, they will be able to work in local and international settings to deliver advanced nursing care. With the latter, they will develop health care services that are culturally appropriate, innovative, and evidence based. Whichever of the two pathways is chosen, graduates will be equipped with the skills and knowledge to positively influence the field of public health.

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Those who complete the dual degree can:

  • Focus on health promotion, disease prevention, and primary intervention.
  • Design, implement, and evaluate new nursing services offered to diverse communities, integrating their skills and knowledge of public health, nursing, and health policy.
  • Specialize in the field of community health nursing, often providing staff development, orientation, leadership, and consultation to nurse generalists.
  • Practice their profession in a range of different settings, including state, federal, and local health departments or agencies, non-governmental agencies across both the private and nonprofit sector, and schools.

As you can see, the MSN and the MPH are two different degrees but they often have a strong overlap. It is important to consider your personal career goals in order to choose between the two programs. Luckily, you also have the opportunity to complete a dual degree, if you are not able to decide between the two or you really want to be knowledgeable in both.

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