Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) vs. Registered Nurse (RN)

From training requirements and responsibilities to job roles, salary potential, and growth rate, learn the differences between an LPN and an RN and pick your path to a career in nursing.

When you visit a hospital or a clinic, one of the first people you encounter as a patient is a nurse. Licensed practical nurses and registered nurses are on the front lines of almost every healthcare facility in the United States. According to the Journal of Nursing Regulation, 2,857,180 RNs and 702,400 LPNs were employed in the U.S. in 2016. That number continues to grow as the demand for skilled nursing rises across the nation. There has never been a better time to pursue a degree in nursing.

Before you enroll in a nursing program, there are a few important choices to make. Should you pursue an LPN career and get into the field as quickly as possible? Or should you pursue an RN career and potentially boost your options for advancement down the line? Whatever road you take, there is a lot to learn beforehand so you can make the right choice. This guide looks at the differences between the day-to-day duties of RNs and LPNs, details salary information and potential job growth, and provides information on the education it will take to get you to your goal. Read on to learn what you need to know about joining the nursing force and decide what path is right for you.

LPN vs. RN: Education & Training Breakdown

Though LPNs and RNs begin with the same education, soon the classes for each program will branch off, teaching LPNs and RNs similar but different skills. Here’s how the typical RN and LPN programs compare to each other.

Licensed Practical Nurse Registered Nurse
Program prerequisites Most programs require some prerequisites, such as English composition, introductory courses in biology and anatomy, and some mathematics courses. The prerequisites might be required before admission or might be built into the program itself. Physical requirements must also be met, such as being able to lift a certain amount of weight and demonstrating physical dexterity with medical supplies. It all starts with the basics that build a strong foundation for nurses, such as introductory courses in biology, microbiology, anatomy and physiology, sociology, chemistry, English composition, human development, communication and the like. Students should also be able to meet certain physical requirements, such as standing for long periods of time and lifting 50 pounds of weight.
What is the program like? Students can expect to complete basic courses in nursing, such as practical nurse leadership, pharmacology, adult nursing care, nursing fundamentals, and more. They will also be required to complete clinicals, making the LPN program a hybrid program with no fully online options. Students will learn about the ethics of healthcare, evidence-based practices, leadership, management skills, assessment, and how to provide critical care. Though much of the coursework can be completed online, clinicals must be completed in-person, making this a hybrid program.
How long does the program last? Accelerated programs for LPNs can last as little as 12 months, but the standard is 18 months, spread across three semesters. Those who need more time can opt for part-time or extended education, which can take up to 24 months. An RN needs a minimum of an associate degree, which usually takes two years. However, “bridge” programs – such as the RN to BSN – can take another two to three years, depending upon whether a student goes to school full-time or part-time.
What is required to graduate? Graduation requirements include satisfactorily passing all courses, completing any internships or other job-related requirements for the program, and completing clinical hours. Most LPN programs require between 40 and 60 credit hours of study. Students will need to pass final exams for their program, as well as submit proof of clinical hours completed. Credits to graduate vary depending upon the program, but 60 credits is a good rule of thumb for the associate degree, and 120 for the bachelor’s degree.
How many clinical hours are required in order to graduate? The number of clinical hours required for LPNs varies by state. In many cases, these requirements can be met through work at a local hospital, home health service, or similar healthcare facility. The number of clinical hours required varies by state; fortunately, most students can complete these requirements at a place where they already work.
What degree or credential do they graduate with? The LPN will earn either a diploma or associate degree. Though a registered nurse can begin with an associate degree, it’s not unusual for them to hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
What are the licensing requirements? In addition to graduating from an accredited nursing program, students must sit for the NCLEX-PN. This comprehensive test of what a student has learned must be taken and passed in all states in order to become a licensed LPN or LVN. In order to become licensed, a nurse has to successfully complete a nursing program from an accredited school and sit for the NCLEX-RN, the definitive test for those in the field. A passing grade is required to earn RN credentials.
What further training is required? LPNs go through some on-the-job training after graduation, depending upon where they choose to work. Beyond that, they are required (in most states) to engage in continuing education. The rules and expectations vary, but this website offers a clear chart detailing what each state requires of continuing education for nurses. Almost every state requires RNs to engage in continuing education throughout their career to keep their license current. The rules and expectations vary; this website offers a clear chart detailing what each state requires of continuing education for nurses.

LPN vs. RN: Career Comparison

LPNs and RNs are both integral parts of a patient healthcare team. But that doesn’t meant they have the same responsibilities. An LPN might perform daily tasks that an RN doesn’t, and vice versa. Those different responsibilities often work in tandem to create better overall care for the patient. Let’s breakdown the differences.

LPN Job Responsibilities

Licensed practical nurses handle many duties that aid in patient safety and comfort. Here’s what most of them are trained to do.

  • Monitor patient health and vital signs, such as taking blood pressure and blood glucose readings
  • Handle basic care for hospitalized patients, such as changing bandages
  • Helping patients with everyday issues, such as bathing, eating, and dressing
  • Talk to patients about their care and address their concerns
  • Collect samples and do routine laboratory testing
  • Care for and feed newborns
  • Report patient concerns, vital signs, and other information to nursing teams or physicians
  • Assist in moving patients as needed

In some states, LPNs have other responsibilities, such as giving oral or injectable medication and starting intravenous medications. Know your state’s job responsibilities is important to know before you start working.

RN Job Responsibilities

Registered nurses have more responsibility than LPNs, but they still usually work to provide bedside care, medications, and comfort for patients. Here’s what RNs are trained to handle.

  • Assess a patient’s condition and record their pertinent medical history
  • Continuously observe patients and note changes in their condition
  • Administer medications and treatments as necessary
  • Work closely with physicians and other medication professionals to create a plan of care for the patient
  • Operate medical equipment as part of diagnosis, treatment, or continuous monitoring
  • Perform diagnostic tests and analyze the results with the care team
  • Teach patients how to care for their injuries or illness at home, and instruct family members on how to do the same

Some registered nurses might have other responsibilities depending upon the area in which they work. For instance, neonatal nurses work with infants who might have health problems, while geriatric nurses work with the elderly. Oncology nurses regularly administer chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments, while public health nurses rarely work with patients at all – instead, they work on educating the public on health and safety.

LPN vs. RN: A Day in the Life

In the table below, we compare the roles of an LPN vs. and RN in a number of important daily duties.

LPN RN
Patient Interaction An LPN is almost always on the “front lines,” working directly with patients. From taking vitals to helping patients with basic needs, this is definitely a hands-on profession. Though RNs are hands-on with their patients, some opportunities for advancement can take the away from working on the floor. For instance, a nurse manager might delegate to other nurses, and those who go into administration might not work directly with patients at all.
Supervisors LPNs are typically supervised by registered nurses and other medical personnel, such as physicians. In some situations, such as while providing in-home care, LPNs might be supervised by reporting on a patient on a daily basis and raising the alarm if something seems amiss. RNs are supervised by physicians and some other medical professionals; in some cases, an RN might work as a charge nurse or floor supervisor, which means they supervise all nurses, including RNs and LPNs.
Job Autonomy Though LPNs do have some autonomy when it comes to handling patient care, their ability to make decisions is very limited and usually must be approved by the RN or other supervisor. Though RNs work closely with physicians and often carry out the doctor’s orders for patient care, they also have the ability to make decisions on their own concerning that patient, such as making the decision to order a test or choosing a medication to use in an emergency situation.
Scope of Practice LPNs handle a great deal of a patient’s basic needs. Depending upon the facility in which they work, they might handle routine medical care, such as checking vital signs, moving patients, and otherwise making them comfortable. They might also care for patients in day-to-day matters, such as changing their clothing or helping them eat. In some states, LPNs are allowed to give medications under the supervision of a registered nurse or other healthcare professional. Registered nurses have a much broader scope of practice than LPNs. They are trained to handle more complex medical issues for patients, such as using certain medical equipment, running tests and analyzing results, and administering medications. They work directly with a patient’s healthcare team and provide input on the best courses of treatment.
Work Setting Many LPNs work in nursing homes, residential care facilities, and hospitals. Some work in government facilities or in home health programs. The vast majority of RNs work in hospitals; the second most common work setting is ambulatory health services.
Interactions with Colleagues LPNs are often in touch with supervisory colleagues, to whom they report important patient information. In some states, LPNs might be directly supervised; in others, they are allowed to perform some medical care on their own. RNs often work as part of a healthcare team, and so are in regular contact with doctors, therapists, social workers, and others who might be part of that team. Though some might work on their own – such as a rural nurse who oversees several areas where medical care is lacking – most RNs have quite regular contact with colleagues.
Decision-Making In most cases, LPNs are beholden to their supervisors’ decisions. Though they might have a say in treatment to some extent, they often carry out the decisions of RNs and physicians, rather than making calls on their own. RNs have a great deal of latitude when it comes to making decisions in the best interest of the patient. They often serve as patient advocates as they work closely with doctors in determining the best courses of treatment.

LPN vs. RN: Salary & Job Growth

Just as there are differences in the amount of schooling it takes to become an LPN or RN, and just as there are differences in responsibilities, there are differences in pay. Let’s take a look at the expected median salaries for each, as well as job growth for LPNs and RNs.

Salary & Job Growth for LPNs

Licensed practical nurses can look forward to massive job growth in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 11% increase for LPN jobs from 2018 to 2028, which is much faster than the average of all occupations. This increase is due in part to the aging baby boomer population and care of those with chronic conditions. LPNs who choose to work in rural and underserved areas will likely see the highest number of job openings.

LPNs across the country reported a median salary of $47,480 in 2019, with the lower ten percent making $34,560 and the highest ten percent pulling in $63,360. Though the highest concentration of employed LPNs was in nursing facilities, home health care, and the offices of physicians, the highest paying jobs were in junior colleges, insurance carriers, religious organizations, specialty hospitals, and outpatient care centers.

Salary & Job Growth for RNs

As the population ages and chronic conditions become more prevalent, the need for registered nurses will grow. Job growth will happen not only in hospitals, but in outpatient care facilities, skilled nursing facilities, and home health care. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth of 12% is expected for RNs between 2018 and 2028.

Most RNs worked in general medical and surgical hospitals, offices of physicians, and home health care. Nursing care facilities and outpatient care centers rounded out the places with the highest concentration of employment. The median income for RNs was $73,300 in 2019; the lower ten percent made $52,080 while the upper ten percent made $111,220. The highest paying industries for RNs included business support services, federal executive branch, and pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing.

Picking You Path: Questions to Ask Yourself

Now that you’ve learned a little about each one of these rewarding professions, it’s time to pick your personal path. Ask yourself these questions about the kind of career you want, how much education you want to pursue, what kind of salary potential you hope to find, and more. These answers can help you choose the path that will best serve you – LPN or RN.

1

Do you want to get out of school quickly?

Through diploma programs, it’s possible to become an LPN in as little as 12 months. If the goal is to get into the workforce quickly and begin building up experience in healthcare, the LPN is the way to do that.

2

Do you want the best opportunities for advancement?

Though LPNs can work their way up to RNs through a bridge program, registered nurses do have much more room to maneuver. Moving to charge nurse or entering administration is something an RN could possibly do on the basis of their bachelor’s degree and work experience.

3

Do you want to “call the shots” in your job?

Registered nurses work closely with care teams to plan out the best treatment possible for patients. They also have the ability to make certain decisions on their own when treating that patient, such as using a different drug or treatment method if it appears the first choice is not working well enough.

4

Would you like to “try out” something before you commit to it?

If you know you want to work in the healthcare field but you’re not sure nursing is for you, earning your LPN can be a great way to get your start in the field and also lay the groundwork for going back to school to build upon the skills and knowledge you’ve already acquired.

5

Do you want to quickly climb the salary ladder?

Though LPNs can make good money, RNs have a greater ability to make lateral moves in a healthcare facility and move into specialty positions. This means they have much more flexibility when it comes to salary and even job security.

6

Are you good at taking instruction and supervision?

Though LPNs can be great at patient care, their actions are limited by the supervision of RNs and doctors who might provide them with specific instruction. This might leave some LPNs feeling frustrated by the barriers placed on them.  

LPN Career Resources

American Nurses Association. 

This professional organization offers information on continuing education, credentials, and much more.

BLS Occupational Employment Statistics: Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses. 

Find information here on where LPNs are most in demand, where the best salaries are, and much more.

BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook: Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses. 

This website offers a wealth of information on everything from job outlook to salary to work environment.

Emergency Nurses Association. 

Those who choose to work in the fast-paced emergency department will appreciate the information from this site.

Learning Nurse. 

This site offers information to keep nurses sharp, such as e-learning and a comprehensive library.

National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses. 

The NALPN works to further the interests of LPNs by offering conferences, further education, state chapters, and more.

National Council of State Boards of Nursing. 

LPNs and RNs alike need this site, which provides information on what is expected of nurses in the state, as well as the required testing.

National Student Nurses’ Association.

This site includes a career centers, conference information, publications, and much more.

O*Net Online: Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses. 

This in-depth site covers everything from skills learned to software a nurse might commonly use.

Sigma Theta Tau Honor Society of Nursing.

This honor society is a great place to begin networking with fellow nurses while in school.

RN Career Resources

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. 

This important site provides information on where to find the best possible accredited programs.

American Board of Nursing Specialties.

Learn everything you need to know about accreditation and nursing specialties through this organization.

American Society of Registered Nurses. 

This website offers up-to-date information on the state of registered nursing, as well as provides Journals and other important papers to keep up with evidence-based practice.

BLS Occupational Employment Statistics: Registered Nurses. 

Take a look at how much nurses make, where they are most in demand, and other important information about RN careers.

BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook: Registered Nurses. 

This guide from the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides everything from a summary of day-to-day work to job outlooks and salary information.

Career One Stop: Registered Nurses Career Video. 

Take a quick look at what RNs do every day, and then find further information on this comprehensive site.

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists. 

RNs often choose to further their education and knowledge to become a specialist. This website allows potential students to explore that aspect of nursing.

National League for Nursing. 

Known as the “Voice of Nursing Education,” this site is a blend of advocacy, public policy, testing services, and more, with a focus on nurse educators.

Nurse Focus. 

An extension of the ANA, this site supports nurses from the start of their education through their retirement.

O*Net Online: Registered Nurses. 

Go in-depth with skills and knowledge acquired, what nurses can expect to do in their careers and much more.