LPN vs. RN: What's the Difference?

The decision to apply to nursing school is perhaps the most important career decision nurses make, but it is only the first. The second? Deciding whether to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a registered nurse (RN). There are important differences between LPNs and RNs, many of which are tightly regulated by the state in which you practice. It can pay to do your research, and not just in the metaphorical sense. Read on to learn more about the differences -- and similarities -- between these two fields.

Snapshot: LPNs vs. RNs

It can't be stressed enough how much state and employer regulations define both LPNs and RNs, which can make it difficult to make broad statements about either field. There are some general trends that define both types of nurses, however. Among them:

  • RNs tend to have more responsibilities and independence in the workplace than LPNs
  • RNs must usually complete more training than LPNs
  • LPNs are in higher demand than RNs, nationally speaking
  • RNs tend to earn more than LPNs

As you can see, which type of nursing career you pursue can define not just your training, but your role, earnings and employment potential throughout the course of your career. Let's explore some of these trends in greater detail.

On the Job: Typical LPN and RN duties

Licensed practical nurses and registered nurses share a common goal: Providing excellent medical care to patients in need. But how they do this -- and how such tasks are regulated -- can vary tremendously from one job or state to the next. Generally speaking, RNs are required to have more training, so tend to operate a bit more independently than LPNs. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), many LPNs report directly to RNs, who in turn work under the direction of physicians and surgeons.

Common LPN duties, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Monitoring patients' vitals
  • Administering basic patient care, like changing bandages
  • Helping patients bathe and dress
  • Maintaining patients' health records
  • Reporting patients' status to RNs and doctors

Registered nurses tend to perform all of these tasks, plus the following duties:

  • Administering medications and treatments
  • Establishing and maintaining patients' care plans
  • Performing diagnostic tests and analyzing results
  • Operating and monitoring medical equipment
  • Teaching patients and their families how to manage illnesses and injuries

Keep in mind that every state regulates the duties RNs and LPNs may perform, and what is acceptable in one state may not be in the next. Duties can also vary by employer or specialty. Your state's Board of Nursing can clarify these differences.

Education: LPN vs. RN training requirements

Another way states regulate LPNs and RNs is through training requirements. These requirements can vary tremendously by employer or jurisdiction, but there are some general trends, like the fact that in most cases, RNs must complete more education than LPNs before entering the field.

LPN training requirements. According to the BLS, all states require LPNs to earn a certificate or diploma from an accredited LPN training program. These programs typically require about one year of study and include a supervised clinical component.

RN training requirements. The BLS notes that RNs can typically choose one of three education paths, namely: a diploma from an accredited nursing program, an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor's of science degree in nursing (BSN). ADN and diploma programs typically require two to three years of study while BNS programs often require four. As with LPN training programs, RN schools require students to complete supervised clinical experience in addition to laboratory and classroom work.

Specialty and bridge programs. It is not uncommon for LPNs or RNs to eventually invest in more training in hopes of earning more, advancing their careers faster or gaining a competitive edge in a tight job market. Many nursing schools offer so-called bridge programs, which allow practicing nurses to complete only the training they need to advance their educations. Common programs include: LVN to RN programs, ASN to BSN programs and RN to BSN programs.

LPN and RN certification and licensing requirements

It is important to note that all states require RNs and LPNs to be licensed. Licensure requirements can vary by state, but typically require candidates to meet minimum education and experience thresholds, pass a national licensing exam and complete ongoing continuing education courses, or CECs. Once again, your state's board of nursing can clarify licensing requirements for both LPNs and RNs. LPNs and RNs can often pursue additional, more voluntary certifications through various professional groups. These certifications allow nurses to specialize in a particular field (or several) of health care, like pediatrics, oncology or gynecology. Some employers prefer to hire certified nurses.

LPN and RN salary projections: Who earns more?

As noted, RNs are typically required to complete more training than LPNs -- a distinction that usually allows RNs to perform more complicated medical tasks, often with a great deal more independence. This extra responsibility has its advantages, not the least of which is more pay. The BLS reports that as of May, 2013, RNs earned a national mean annual wage of $68,910, which was significantly more than the $42,910 LPNs earned on average that same year. Keep in mind that there are several factors that influence earnings, like education, experience and certification. Location can also drive wages, especially in high-demand and high cost-of-living regions. The BLS provides state- and metro-specific salary data for LPNs and RNs.

Career outlook for LPNs and RNs

Both LPNs and RNs can rejoice in the fact that both professionals are in-demand, nationally speaking, though the former has a bit of an edge. The BLS projects that demand for LPNs will grow by 25 percent between 2012 and 2022 -- much faster than the average for all occupations nationally. The Bureau projects that demand for RNs will grow by 19 percent over that same period -- a tad slower than LPNs, but still faster than the national average. As with earnings, both LPN and RN career projections can vary with a number of factors, like training, experience and location. Some employers also prefer to hire candidates who have invested in voluntary professional certification, further specializing their training.

Sources:

Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm

Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, Occupational Employment and Wages: May, 2013, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292061.htm

Registered Nurses, Occupational Employment and Wages: May, 2013, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291141.htm

Registered Nurses, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm

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