Due in part to the aging baby boomer population, registered nurses (RNs) are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15% increase in RN positions from 2016 to 2026, creating a need for 3.4 million nurses in the coming years.
Students interested in nursing can become a medical assistant (MA), licensed practical nurse (LPN), or RN. Aspiring healthcare professionals should understand the main differences between medical assistant and nurse positions. MAs deal mainly with administrative tasks, while RNs assist physicians by administering medication, assessing patients, and supervising employees. Through MA-to-RN bridge programs, MAs can complete the additional education needed to assume more responsibility in healthcare facilities.
Medical assistants support physicians and nurses in clinics, primary care offices, and hospitals. They handle billing, patient records, and scheduling, along with some clinical tasks. Students looking to enter the healthcare field quickly might consider working as a medical assistant, since medical assistant jobs require only a diploma.
What Do Medical Assistants Do?
In a given day, medical assistants complete a combination of clinical and administrative tasks. When a patient comes in, a medical assistant takes down patient history, records personal information, and takes notes for the doctor on duty. They may conduct some preliminary tests such as measuring blood pressure, temperature, and pulse. If needed, the medical assistant may take blood samples, give injections, or administer medication.
However, a medical assistant’s scope of work depends largely on their job title and employer. Administrative medical assistants answer phones, schedule appointments, and fill out insurance paperwork. Clinical medical assistants perform different tasks depending on state regulations; they may draw blood, conduct laboratory tests, or clean medical instruments. Ophthalmic, optometric, and podiatric medical assistants help ophthalmologists, optometrists, and podiatrists, respectively. These professionals work primarily in physicians’ offices, though many also work in hospitals and outpatient care centers. Through the table below, you can learn more about the top employers of medical assistants.
The Largest Employers of Medical Assistants
- Offices of Physicians: 57%
- Hospitals; State, Local, and Private: 15%
- Outpatient Care Centers: 9%
- Offices of Chiropractors: 4%
How to Become a Medical Assistant
Nursing students should understand the path to becoming a medical assistant vs a nurse. Aspiring medical assistants must first satisfy education expectations for the field. Most states do not enforce any specific educational requirements, so students can enter the profession through many paths. Medical assistants often earn a postsecondary diploma or certificate after obtaining their high school diploma or GED. Students can complete a medical assistant diploma or certificate in roughly one year at a community college, vocational or technical school, or university. Some students pursue a medical assistant associate degree, which takes two years to complete and might lead to more job opportunities than a certificate.
While some medical assistants land a job directly out of high school, employers usually prefer applicants who completed a postsecondary program. Medical assistant diploma and associate programs teach students about anatomy, medical terminology, and recordkeeping.
While states usually do not require medical assistants to become licensed, employers may prefer certified medical assistants. Many organizations offer medical assistant credentials. For instance, through the American Association of Medical Assistants, students can become a certified medical assistant. Additionally, American Medical Technologists offers registered medical assistant certification. To become certified, applicants must pass an exam and meet education and work experience requirements.
Employment and Salary Outlook for Medical Assistants
U.S. government statistics point to faster job growth among medical assistants vs LVNs, LPNs, and RNs. The BLS projects that positions for medical assistants will grow 29% from 2016 to 2026, adding close to 200,000 positions. By comparison, the BLS projects a 22% growth rate for other healthcare support occupations and a 7% growth rate for the U.S. job force as a whole. The rapid increase in healthcare support jobs comes as the aging baby boomer generation demands more medical services. As physicians and hospitals become busier, they need an increasing number of medical assistants to support operations.
Medical assistants in the U.S. earn a median annual income of $32,480. However, salaries for medical assistants vary depending on industry, company, and location. The lowest 10% of medical assistants earn $23,830 per year, while the 90th percentile earners take home $45,900 annually. Medical laboratories and universities pay medical assistants close to $38,000 per year, and junior colleges pay over $40,000. Through the table below, you can learn about how location affects salaries for these professionals.
Highest-Paying States for MAs
|State||Employment||Median Annual Salary|
|District of Columbia||1,760||$40,570|
Licensed Practical Nurses
Some medical assistants choose to become LPNs before applying for RN licensure. LPNs administer basic medical care by changing dressings, monitoring vital signs, and listening to patient concerns. In the following sections, you can learn more about LPN responsibilities and how to become an LPN.
What Do LPNs Do?
Licensed practical nurses and licensed vocational nurses enjoy more responsibility than MAs, but less than RNs. They work under the supervision of RNs and doctors to provide basic healthcare. They keep records, inform patients about treatments, and perform simple medical tasks.
Daily duties of LPNs vary depending on the nurse’s employer and specialty. According to the table below, which lays out the largest employers of LPNs, almost 40% of LPNs work in nursing and residential care facilities. These nurses may administer medicines and help patients dress, bathe, and eat. Many LPNs also work in hospitals where they support RNs, physicians, and surgeons. In hospitals, LPNs may start intravenous drips or check blood pressure. LPNs who work in physicians’ offices might handle patient health records. Typical duties also depend on experience level; in some states, experienced LPNs can supervise other LPNs and medical assistants.
The Largest Employers of LPNs
- Nursing and Residential Care Facilities: 38%
- Hospitals; State, Local, and Private: 16%
- Offices of Physicians: 13%
- Home Healthcare Services: 12%
- Government: 7%
How to Become an LPN
Aspiring nurses need to take several steps before becoming an LPN. First, students need to research education requirements in their state and complete an approved training program. Students can pursue an LPN diploma or certificate at a technical school, community college, high school, or hospital. LPN programs take around one year to complete and include a clinical component. In LPN programs, students learn about healthcare, pharmacology, biology, and chemistry. Medical assistants usually need to complete additional education to become an LPN, since LPN programs boast coursework and clinical training beyond the scope of most medical assistant programs.
After completing a state-approved LPN training program, students can begin the path to licensure. Students must pass the NCLEX-PN exam, a standardized test developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. The exam covers topics such as pharmacology, health promotion, health maintenance, and infection control. Along with the exam, state licensing boards commonly require clinical hours, specific coursework, and an application. Aspiring LPNs often must agree to a criminal background check. Be sure to carefully research licensing requirements in your state, since expectations vary.
Employment and Salary Outlook for LPNs
The BLS projects a positive career outlook for LPNs in the near future. From 2016 to 2026, the BLS projects that LPNs and LVNs will experience a 12% increase in opportunities, leading to a total employment of 813,400 in 2026. This sharp growth comes as the baby boomer generation ages and demands more healthcare services. Hospitals will need to hire more LPNs to assist doctors, nurses, and surgeons, while home healthcare companies and long-term care facilities will need more LPNs to care for the elderly. In addition, opportunities for LPNs increase as some chronic conditions become more prevalent. The increasing number of people developing illnesses like diabetes and obesity will in turn increase the demand for LPNs in extended care and skilled nursing facilities.
Nurses who take advantage of the growing LPN field can expect different salaries depending on industry and location. The bottom 10% of earners make around $33,000 per year, while the top 10% of LPNs earn over $60,000 annually. The highest paying industries for LPNs include insurance carriers, religious organizations, and junior colleges. Consult the table below to learn about how LPN salaries differ across the U.S.
Highest-Paying States for LPNs
|State||Employment||Median Annual Salary|
RNs provide direct care to patients in many settings. They know how to operate medical devices and possess a strong knowledge of medications, health conditions, and treatments. Students might consider becoming an RN over an MA or LPN, since RNs enjoy more responsibility and higher salaries.
What Do RNs Do?
RNs admit patients, run diagnostic tests, and determine appropriate treatments. They may also dress wounds and help doctors prepare for surgeries. Additionally, they communicate with patients and families to provide emotional support.
An RN’s specific responsibilities vary depending on their specialty and workplace. Some nursing students concentrate in neonatal care, mental health nursing, emergency room care, or another area. These specialized nurses complete different daily tasks than nurses in a community clinic or doctor’s office. The duties of an RN also differ based on the size of their healthcare facility. RNs at large hospitals and clinics might supervise lower-level employees, while nurses at smaller facilities may take on more administrative duties.
The table below outlines some of the largest employers of nurses in the U.S. Hospitals employ the most RNs, followed by ambulatory healthcare services and residential care facilities.
The Largest Employers of Registered Nurses
- Hospitals; State, Local, and Private: 61%
- Ambulatory Healthcare Services: 18%
- Nursing and Residential Care Facilities: 7%
- Government: 5%
- Educational Services; State, Local, and Private: 3%
How to Become an RN
Though licensing requirements vary by state, all aspiring RNs must complete a state-approved training program. Students can opt for either an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Both types of programs cover topics like anatomy, biology, nutrition, chemistry, and physiology. In addition, both associate and bachelor’s programs include a supervised clinical component. However, unlike associate in nursing programs, bachelors programs explore topics like communication, critical thinking, management, and leadership. While RNs can find work with either degree, many employers require or prefer a bachelor’s degree for RN positions. Associate programs take two years to complete, while bachelor’s programs take four years.
In order to become an RN, students must become certified through their state’s licensing board. At minimum, candidates must graduate from an approved program and pass the NCLEX-RN to obtain licensure. The NCLEX-RN costs $200 and tests students’ knowledge of areas such as risk reduction, pharmacology, and care management. Some states also require a criminal background check or continuing education courses. Aspiring nurses should familiarize themselves with the licensing and renewal requirements in their state.
Employment and Salary Outlook for Registered Nurses
As with other healthcare occupations, employment opportunities for RNs continue to grow due to a few key factors. The aging U.S. population creates an increased need for a variety of medical services. Hospitals and other facilities demand RNs who can care for patients with age-related conditions like arthritis, dementia, obesity, and diabetes. Overall, the BLS projects that the number of RN jobs will increase by 438,000 between 2016 and 2026. Outpatient care centers, long-term rehabilitation facilities, and long-term care facilities fuel much of this growth.
Students advancing from medical assistant to RN positions earn varying amounts. The top 10% of earners take home $104,000 per year, while the bottom 10% earn just under $50,000. RN salaries depend partially on industry. For example, the average RN in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing earns an annual income of $90,510, while RNs working in the federal executive branch take home $87,030 on average. Additionally, RN salaries vary drastically by state. RNs in California make just over $100,000, while RNs in South Dakota take home around $57,000. Consult the table below to learn about some of the highest-paying states for RNs.
Highest-Paying States for MAs
|State||Employment||Median Annual Salary|
|District of Columbia||11,000||$90,110|