LPN vs RN + Roles & Responsibilities

Despite the fact that nursing is a demanding profession, it is a very popular one. There are almost three million registered nurses, or RNs, and almost seven hundred thousand licensed practical nurses, or LPNs, in the U.S.

The call to help the sick and injured is as old as time. Long considered women’s work, it was a vocation held in respectful condescension for decades. Due to the essential work done by Clara Barton and Dorethea Dix during the Civil War, the professional has gradually gained in respect and pay, attracting men to it along the way.

People entering the field today are presented with a decision. Should they aim for LPN certification or RN status? Here is a look at the similarities, differences, and the education and licensing required for each.

Similarities and Differences

The essentials of nursing are the same for both LPNs and RNs. They both care for people who are suffering from illness and injury, providing medical and functional assistance to help them live as pain-free and as comfortable as possible, and hopefully move forward in their journey toward health. The medical system requires the talents and skills of both LPNs and RNs.

For both, helping patients is physically hard. They must also handle the mentally and emotionally draining distress of interacting daily with people in pain and people who are dying.

The differences are found in workplace settings, types of duties and level of responsibility at work, years of education, licensing requirements, rate of pay and status.

Status, Duties and Responsibilities

RN vs LPNRNs are considered next in the healthcare hierachy after physicians. The range of work they do is large. They can diagnose and treat a patient. This gives them considerable status in the medical field and among lay people.

LPNs work under the supervision of an RN or a physician and can’t legally diagnose or treat patients. However, many long-term LPNs have the experience and training to unofficially assess a patient’s condition with expertise. Within the professional these workers are highly appreciated for the practical knowledge they bring to patient care.

But there is no question that overall, the role of the LPN has a lower overall status than that of an RN, both in and out of the profession.

Work Settings

The most common place to find LPNs is in a long-term care facility. Almost 30% of them choose to work in a long-term facility. The demand is high and the setting gives them a chance to move up the ladder into supervisory work. In fact, working in long-term care facility makes it six times more likely they will be given administration responsibilities than if they worked in a hospital.

LPNs in a hospital routinely carry out the jobs like emptying bed pans, bathing patients, taking vital signs, and at times giving medication. Their chances of specializing, for example working in the neonatal ward, are very limited.

RNs work hands-on with patients, in supervisory roles, and in patient education. The duties can vary considerably according to the specialty they choose. Highly trained RNs with advanced training work in emergency rooms, assist doctors in surgery, work with cancer patients, and with people fighting diabetes, heart disease and stroke, eye problems and many more.

Here is the breakdown of work settings for LPNs and RNs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • 29% of LPNs in nursing care facilities
  • 15% of LPNs in hospitals
  • 12% of LPNs in doctor’s offices
  • 9% of LPNs in home health
  • 48% of RNs in private general hospitals
  • 6% of RNs in local hospitals
  • 5% of RNs in long term care facilities
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Rate of Pay

According to BLS records kept in 2010, RNs averaged $64,690 a year. An LPN averaged $40,380. With specialization, the annual pay for an RN goes much higher. LPNs have very limited chance of specialization, and therefore it is much less likely they can break through to higher annual incomes.

Education and Licensing

It takes one to three years less time to get the education needed for LPN licensing than it does to become and RN. The cost of the program is almost always less for an LPN than for an RN.

For an LPN, the training is both book-based in the classroom and hands-on in a clinical setting. This prepared students to work in hospitals, long-term care facilities and other medical settings.

Training is available at a large number of community colleges and technical colleges. A number of them allow the student to apply the college credits earned getting an LPN certificate to a nursing degree at a later time. Each school has its own requirements for getting into the LPN program.

The licensing process involves a background check based on fingerprints and a screening process. LPN candidates must pass a national exam called the NCLEX-PN. Every LPN must acquire the required number of continuing education credits each year in order to stay licensed. In addition there are regional requirements that vary state by state.

RNs can get either a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing, or BSN. Career choices are wider with the BSN, which is a necessity if a nurse wants to advance through the ranks into management. Many career RNs later get a masters, essential for certain specialties like clinical nurse, anesthetist, midwife or nurse practitioner.

Each school has its own requirements for admittance. The background check is the same as for an LPN.

RNs need to fulfill the national licensing requirements before they can work in the profession. This means graduating from an approved program and passing the National Council Licensure Examination, both the written and practical sections. There are also state-by-state licensing requirements, especially if the RN works in a specialty. All RNs need to keep up with continuing education credits annually to stay licensed.