Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN) vs. Registered Nurses (RN)
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Do you want to start your nursing career and cannot decide between a role as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or registered nurse (RN)? What you can afford in time and money can often determine the initial decision, but each job offers opportunities toward advancement.
You can get started in nursing by becoming an LPN or a RN — paths that take 1-4 years. These entry-level positions share similar responsibilities, although the scope of practice and educational requirements differ. Degree time lines and salaries differ too.
What is the difference between LPNs and RNs? Learn more about what differentiates the two roles, including the average salary for LPNs vs. RNs.
Key Similarities and Differences Between LPNs and RNs
LPNs and RNs meet many of the same fundamental nursing needs. Both types of nurses care for people suffering from illness and injury. They provide medical and functional assistance to help patients recover as quickly and comfortably as possible. LPNs and RNs alike perform work that often proves mentally and physically demanding, serving patients in pain or dying.
However, RNs and LPNs usually work in different settings and hold distinct job duties and responsibility levels. Candidates for each position must fulfill separate educational and licensing requirements that result in different statuses and salaries.
What is an LPN?
Licensed practical nurses perform vital work with the direction of RNs, physicians, dentists, or other healthcare professionals. LPNs take direction from RNs to administer medication and treatments. This role also requires gathering patient data, which other licensed healthcare providers later interpret. Unlike registered nurses, licensed practical nurses typically do not have state authorization to make health assessments, create nursing care plans, or triage patients.
What is an RN?
Compared to LPNs, registered nurses operate relatively independently. States allow RNs to interpret patient information and treat sick or dying patients with the orders of doctors. Their work may include case findings, healthcare promotion and patient teaching, health counseling, triaging patients, rehabilitative care, and/or chronic pain management.
Both LPNs and RNs use their specialized judgment to provide direct patient care. To the patient, it may be difficult to discern the differences between the two nurses. However, RNs enjoy relative independence in their nursing practice, and they delegate tasks to LPNs but on a limited scope of care.
LPNs perform tasks such as processing specimens and preparing patients for surgery or diagnostic tests. Registered nurses create nursing plans of care, and they also administer medications and treatments.
|Points to Consider||LPN||RN|
|Education Required||LPN program||Associate degree in nursing (ADN) or bachelor degree of science in nursing (BSN)|
|Time to Become||One year||2-4 years|
|Average Annual Salary||$51,850 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic, 2021)||$82,750 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021)|
Licensed practical nurses and registered nurses work in the same facilities, often closely as a team. However, RNs mostly work in general medical and surgical hospitals. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, as of May 2021, more than 1.7 million RNs work in hospitals, while 78,090 LPNs work in hospitals. Registered nurses also work at physicians' offices, which employ about 199,130 RNs.
Most LPNs — some 177,960 — work in nursing care facilities. Another 89,280 have jobs at home healthcare services, according to the BLS.
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Roles and Responsibilities
RNs and LPNs have a lot of similar duties, but their roles often differ, especially considering where they work. In all situations, RNs have more responsibilities compared to LPNs.
In nursing care facilities, hospitals, and physicians' offices, LPNs serve as support staff. LPNs work in teams that are managed by RNs and physicians to perform basic nursing care, like taking vital signs, preparing meals, and helping patients bathe.
What Does an LPN Do?
LPNs provide nursing care to sick, injured, or dying patients. They work with an RN's supervision or another licensed healthcare provider, such as a dentist or physician. States regulate what LPNs can do so their roles vary by region and setting.
For example, LPNs can start intravenous lines (IVs) in some states. And in other states, LPNs delegate duties to medical assistants. However, in general, LPNs have dependent roles, performing duties such as:
- Monitoring a patient by assessing their comfort level
- Tending to patients by taking their blood pressure, changing bandages, and inserting catheters
- Providing emotional support to patients and families
- Ensuring the basic comfort of patients
- Administering medications according to a nursing care plan
- Collecting patient data and recording their findings for another healthcare provider to review
What Does an RN Do?
Registered nurses work fairly independently in their practice without the constant supervision of a healthcare provider. States may provide RNs with nursing diagnostic privileges. That said, they cannot give a medical diagnosis or prescribe medication and treatments.
Much like LPNs, the role of an RN depends on where they work and their credentials. They may:
- Record medical histories and symptoms
- Find cases (identifying people and families with health risks and helping them find resources)
- Teach patients and families about medication side effects, postsurgical care, and/or the management of illnesses or injuries
- Educate people on disease processes, healthcare management, and disease prevention
- Provide mental health and/or addiction counseling
- Triage and assess patients
- Administer medications and treatments to patients
Education and Licensure
State regulations differ for LPNs vs. RNs because of the differences in educational training. RNs must spend more time in college, earning either an ADN or a BSN. LPNs can complete a program in a single year.
How to Become an LPN
States determine the scope of practice and educational requirements for LPNs. All LPNs must complete a state-approved LPN program that leads to a certificate or diploma. Technical schools and community colleges offer programs that often take one year or less to complete.
After graduating, you can take the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN) and later apply for state licensure.
Additionally, as an LPN you can specialize in specific nursing fields such as IV therapy. This requires getting certification from professional nursing associations.
How to Become an RN
As an RN, you can start your nursing career after earning either an ADN or a BSN, which take full-time students 2-4 years. Both degrees prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN exam that leads to licensure. While you can work with an ADN degree, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing recommends that more employers encourage RNs to earn BSN degrees.
Professional nursing organizations, such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center, also offer certifications to RNs who want to specialize in areas like pediatrics or gerontology.
Salary and Career Outlook
There is truth to the saying: the more you learn, the more you earn. In nursing, earning a higher degree and becoming an RN offers more opportunities and autonomy. However, both nursing careers offer job security, with a steady demand for more LPNs and RNs in the next decade.
LPN Salary and Career Outlook
Average Annual LPN Salary
Source: BLS, 2021
Where you live, your degree, your seniority, and nursing specialty influence what you earn as an LPN. The bottom 10% of LPNs earned less than $37,150 as of May 2021, according to the BLS. And the top 10% enjoyed salaries above $63,790.
Government agencies pay LPNs the most with median salaries of $52,210. No matter the setting, there is demand for LPNs. The BLS projects that jobs for LPNs will grow by 6% from 2021-2031, with employers adding 58,800 positions during that time.
RN Salary and Career Outlook
Average Annual RN Salary
Source: BLS, 2021
As of May 2021, the top 10% of registered nurses earned more than $120,250, according to the BLS. Salaries for RNs vary by setting, with government and hospital RNs making a median annual salary of $85,970 and $78,070, respectively.
Certifications allow RNs to get more money and gain authority in specialty areas like ambulatory care, adult-gerontology, or pain management.
The job outlook for RNs looks the same as LPNs, according to the BLS. Employers will likely add 203,200 jobs for RNs from 2021-2031, increasing positions by 6%.
LPN vs. RN: Which Career Is Right for Me?
Only you can decide which career serves you best: LPN vs. RN. If you want to become a nurse quickly, you may be best suited to become an LPN. The shorter education route also costs less. And if you decide later to become an RN, LPNs can get advanced standing in LPN-to-RN programs.
Both careers also offer the same job security, with jobs projected to grow on pace with most other careers.
Frequently Asked Questions About LPNs and RNs
What can an RN do that an LPN cannot?
RNs can work relatively independently, while LPNs must operate under licensed nurses, such as RNs or advanced practice nurses. Not all states allow LPNs to provide IV therapy, and they cannot do it without supervision. LPNs can typically insert IVs and draw blood for labs. LPNs cannot administer IV push medication or start blood transfusions.
RNs perform health assessments and provide prevention education. RNs also have the authority to create nursing care plans.
Can I complete LPN programs online?
Yes. LPN candidates can enroll in online diploma or certificate programs that allow them to complete their core coursework remotely. Online classes may run asynchronously with no set class times. However, students must usually complete labs and clinical hours in person, on campus.
Can I complete RN programs online?
Yes. RN programs are also delivered online in full- or part-time formats. These flexible degrees may be especially attractive to students who must earn a paycheck while they go to school. However, much like LPN programs, students must complete clinical hours on site at local hospitals or other designated facilities.
Specific clinical requirements vary by state.
Can I go from LPN to RN?
Yes. Nursing schools offer LPN-to-RN programs that fast track students who meet requirements to earn a BSN in two years — or less. Instead of taking four years to get an undergraduate degree, an LPN can use their nursing knowledge to get advanced standing in a nursing bridge program.
Nursing graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN to get licensed as an RN.
Page last reviewed February 23, 2023
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