The Difference Between LPNs and RNs

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Nursing students should understand the differences between RNs and LPNs so they can make the right career choice.

At first glance, the roles of a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and a registered nurse (RN) may appear similar. While LPNs and RNs both focus on the delivery of patient care, factors such as education, job location, salary and responsibilities associated with the two positions quickly diverge.

For example, RNs are qualified to dispense medication and treatment, while LPNs focus more on basic patient comfort and care. RNs are also more likely to work in a hospital, while LPNs frequently work in a long-term care facility.

Before choosing a nursing program, students should understand the differences between RNs and LPNs so they can make the right career choice. The RN to BSN online program at Duquesne University can prepare graduates for the future of nursing. Flexible schedules make obtaining a degree while working and dealing with family obligations possible. Knowledge gained in the RN to BSN curriculum also can help graduates become leaders in the nursing field.

The Role of an LPN

In terms of education, becoming an LPN takes the shortest amount of time, generally a year of study at a technical or community college. Students need to complete an accredited practical nursing program that includes courses in biology, nursing and pharmacology, along with supervised clinical experience. After completing the coursework, LPNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN).

After licensure, an LPN can work in a variety of settings. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most LPNs work at:

  • Nursing/residential care facilities (38 percent)
  • Hospitals (16 percent)
  • Physicians’ offices (13 percent)
  • Home healthcare services (12 percent)
  • Government (7 percent)

An LPN must work under the supervision of registered nurses and doctors with the scope of their practice limited. Job duties most commonly involve providing basic patient care such as inserting catheters and checking blood pressure. An LPN will help with bathing or dressing a patient and reports patient status to RNs or doctors.

The median salary for an LPN, as of May 2017, was $45,030, according to the BLS. The highest-paying sector of employment for an LPN was the government at $46,660, followed by nursing/residential care facilities ($46,280), home healthcare services ($45,220) and hospitals ($43,550).

With experience (and depending on the state and employer), LPNs may move into supervisory positions over other practical nurses, nursing assistants (CNAs) and, in some cases, medical assistants (MAs). They may also choose to seek additional education to become an RN or earn certification in a medical specialty.

The Role of an RN

Those who pursue an RN degree have three options:

  • Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
  • An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
  • A diploma from an approved nursing program

Completing the coursework for a BSN degree takes four years, while the ADN degree and diploma program take two to three years. All programs include coursework relating to physical science and social behavior, along with clinical experiences in different workplaces. Curriculum for BSN programs typically involves coursework in leadership, ethics and advocacy, which ADN and diploma programs may not cover.

After completing coursework, nurses must sit for the NCLEX-RN. The test is considered more difficult than the NCLEX-PN required for an LPN because it requires more critical thinking.

The majority of RNs — 61 percent of them, according to the BLS — work in hospitals. The next largest employers are:

  • Ambulatory healthcare services (18 percent)
  • Nursing/residential care facilities (7 percent)
  • Government (5 percent)
  • Educational services (3 percent)

RNs are expected to assess and make decisions before seeking the support of a supervisor, and therefore have an expanded set of duties. RNs can work in supervisory roles in hospital settings and, with advanced training, in emergency rooms and operating rooms assisting with surgery. Job duties for an RN can include:

  • Administer medication and treatment to patients
  • Coordinate plans for patient care
  • Perform diagnostic tests and analyze results
  • Instruct patients on how to manage illnesses after treatment
  • Oversee other workers such as LPNs, nursing aides and home care aides

The median salary for an RN, as of May 2017, was $70,000. The highest paying employment sector was the government at $75,900, followed by hospitals ($72,070), ambulatory healthcare services ($66,300) and nursing/residential care facilities ($62,320).

While both LPNs and RNs have increasing job opportunities, nursing is “one of the few fields where there is more demand at the higher levels of practice than the lower ones,” writes Some 3.2 million RNs have active licenses compared to more than 800,000 LPNs because “their skills — and legally allowable duties — are needed.”

RNs frequently supervise LPNs and other medical professionals and, with experience and higher education, can move into management positions such as chief of nursing. Other options include pursuing an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) role or moving into the business side of healthcare.

About Duquesne University’s Online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN-BSN) Program

Recognized as among the best in the United States, DU’s RN-BSN online program provides students with the knowledge and skills needed to practice as professional nurse generalists. The program’s convenient online design allows students to pursue degrees on their own schedule.



LPNs vs RNs: Nursing Licensure

Should I Become an LPN or CNA?: Nurse Journal

Occupational Outlook Handbook: Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Why and How Licensed Practical Nurse Differs From Registered Nurse?

Registered Nurse vs. Licensed Practical Nurse:

Occupational Outlook Handbook: Registered Nurses/Summary: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Occupational Outlook Handbook: Registered Nurses/Work Environment: Bureau of Labor Statistics