Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

A licensed practical nurse, also known as an LPN, is a member of the health care workforce who assists nurses and doctors in caring for patients.

The primary difference between LPNs and registered nurses (RNs) is the scope of duties and education: Licensed practical nurses typically work under the supervision of doctors or registered nurses and provide basic nursing care, such as monitoring patients, changing wound dressings, and helping patients bathe or dress. LPNs also assist doctors and RNs with disseminating information about care programs to patients and their families.

Practical nursing programs prepare students to provide care in a variety of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, and residential-care facilities.

Becoming an LPN typically takes at least one year of full-time study and should culminate in a certificate of achievement or a diploma, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

What does a licensed practical nurse do?

According to the BLS, more licensed practical nurses work in skilled nursing facilities and extended-care centers than in hospitals. Though the daily tasks of an LPN will depend on the type of facility he or she works in, the following is a list of common duties performed by most LPNs, as reported by the BLS:

  • Inserting catheters and dressing wounds
  • Checking blood pressure, and other forms of patient monitoring
  • Assisting patients with bathing, dressing, or feeding
  • Keeping records on a patient's health, and reporting to registered nurses and doctors on a patient's condition
  • Helping to education family members on caring for patients at home

Day-to-day tasks will also depend on the state in which the LPN works. In some states, LPN's are allowed to give medication or start intravenous (IV) drips, while in others, LPNs are not licensed to perform these tasks, the BLS reports.

How to become a licensed LPN

To work as an LPN, students must complete a state-approved educational program that culminates in an LPN certificate of achievement or a diploma. Those who wish to enter the field can get a head start by enrolling in core science courses in high school or at a local junior college.

LPN educational programs are usually offered at community colleges or vocational schools, and contain a mix of classroom and laboratory courses and clinical field experience. Some community colleges require students interested in enrolling in their LPN certificate programs to complete two or more semesters of general education studies prior to enrollment.

Training typically includes study in core subjects such as biology, psychology, mathematics, and English composition, since communication with RNs, medical staff, and patients plays such a crucial role in success in the field.

LPN coursework generally includes study in the following areas:

  • Foundations of practical nursing
  • Nursing care and adult theory
  • Nursing care for infants and women
  • Pharmacology
  • Practical nursing leadership
  • Introductory and advanced clinical lab

The skills required of an LPN are varied. Strong interpersonal and communication skills help LPNs converse productively with patients and other members of the health care team. They must also have keen attention to detail and be able to make fast decisions regarding patient care. Scheduling flexibility may prove important, as many LPNs work long night shifts over weekends and holidays. LPNs help patients get around their rooms, bathe, and dress, so they should be strong enough to assist patients with those tasks.

Admission to the clinical side of LPN training programs can be quite competitive since placement opportunities can lag behind the number of applicants. Students who perform well academically can have an increased advantage of landing a clinical placement over students with weaker grades.

Most schools that offer LPN training have one-year programs for full-time students. Others may offer associate-level degrees that take two years to complete. These are typically for students who eventually want to seek the RN designation.

LPN certification

Students who successfully complete their educational requirements are eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination practical nursing test (NCLEX), which is required by every state. The test measures a student's competency to work safely as an entry-level nurse.

Before taking the NCLEX, students must get authorization to take the test through their state board of nursing and register for the computer-based exam with test administrator Pearson VUE. Additionally, students are advised to log on to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing Web site (www.ncsbn.org) and review the NCLEX Candidate Bulletin and NCLEX test plans.

Cost for the exam was $200 as of September 2014. According to the the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, approximately 82 percent of first-time test takers passed the exam the first six months of 2014.

The exam is divided into four main categories, with a percentage of weight given to each category:

  • Safe and Effective Care Environment (26 to 38 percent)
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance (7 to 13 percent)
  • Psychosocial Integrity (8 to 14 percent)
  • Physiological Integrity (35 to 59 percent)

All test takers must answer a minimum of 85 questions, the council says, while the maximum number of questions is 205 during the five hours allotted to the test.

Successfully passing the NCLEX-PN is the foundation of your entry into the nursing profession. It shows you understand the requirements to administer the appropriate level of care to patients and also to work with senior medical staff as an educated professional. LPNs often take additional schooling to become registered nurses through LPN to RN educational programs, while others advance to supervisory positions, the BLS notes.

LPNs can earn additional professional certifications through groups like the National Association of Practical Nurse Education and Services. These credentials tend to be voluntary, but some employers prefer candidates who have them.

Salary information and career outlook

According to the BLS, there were 695,610 licensed practical nurses working in the U.S. as of May 2014, and they earned a median annual wage of $43,420, or $20.87 an hour. The top 10 percent of LPNs earned $28.22 an hour or more, while the bottom 10 percent took home $15.21 an hour or less.

The top five highest paying states for licensed practical nurses (based on mean annual wage) are:

  1. Connecticut ($55,170 per year)
  2. Alaska ($54,380 per year)
  3. Massachusetts ($53,820 per year)
  4. New Jersey ($52,950 per year)
  5. Nevada ($52,760 per year)

The greater New York City and greater Los Angeles areas are the two largest metropolitan employment regions for LPNs, and both pay around $4 an hour higher than the national median salary for the profession. States with the highest employment of LPNs in 2014 include Texas, California, New York, and Florida.

Demand for licensed practical nurses is on the rise; the BLS projects employment in the field to grow by as much as 25 percent nationwide from 2012 through 2022. That's more than double the average growth rate of all other occupations combined. Demand is expected to come from waves of aging baby boomers who need more medical care, as well as from a rise in staffing requirements at outpatient care centers. Additionally, the BLS notes, many senior-level LPNs are expected to retire during that time, creating additional job openings.


  1. Integrated Bridge to Licensed Practical Nursing Program, LaGuardia Community College, http://www.laguardia.edu/uploadedFiles/T2/pcap/docs/LPN11.3.pdf
  2. Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292061.htm
  3. Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm#tab-1
  4. NAPNES Advanced Education Certificate Programs, http://www.nursingcerts.com/Default.aspx
  5. NCLEX-PN Test Plan Examination, National Council of State Boards of Nursing, www.ncsbn.org/2014_PN_TestPlan.pdf
  6. Number of Candidates Taking NCLEX Examination and Percent Passing, by Type of Candidate, 2014, National Council of State Boards of Nursing, www.ncsbn.org/Table_of_Pass_Rates_2014.pdf

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