If you’re thinking about becoming a nurse, you may be wondering what the differences are between a registered nurse (RN) and a licensed practical nurse (LPN) also known as an (LVN).
Both nursing types are direct patient care roles that are vital to the healthcare profession. However, there are several important distinctions between them that you need to know about. Let’s get into them.
Part One What’s the Difference Between a Registered Nurse (RN) and a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)?
In short, the difference between the two nursing roles lies in the education and license the nurse possesses.
Registered Nurses (RNs) have completed either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) program or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, (or in more rare cases, a diploma program) and then taken and passed their NCLEX-RN licensure exam to become a registered nurse.
Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) sometimes referred to as Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN) have also completed schooling, but a specific LPN program rather than a registered nurse program. These typically take 2 years to complete and can be found at community or vocational colleges. Prospective LPNs will then have to take and pass the NCLEX-PN licensure exam in order to become licensed.
Part Two LPN vs RN Job Duty Differences
Both RNs and LPNs perform a wide range of patient care duties. However, to fully understand the distinctions between the professions, it is crucial to understand their scope of practice: the practices and professional duties that an RN and LPN are legally allowed to practice under state law.
An RN and LPN achieve different professional licenses based on education, experience, and training. These licenses determine the scope of practice that the clinician can legally have. (Each state has its own Nurse Practice Act, so the scope of practice for RNs and LPNs differs slightly across the country).
RNs Have More Responsibilities & Can Provide Higher Levels of Patient Care
RNs have a broader scope of practice and require considerably more education to earn licensure. RNs can also work independently in most areas. LPNs, however, must work under a physician or an RN’s supervision.
RNs can give a higher level of patient care, often giving 1:1 (one nurse to one patient), or in extreme circumstances even 2:1 care (2 nurses to one patient). In med-surg areas, RNs usually have anywhere from 3-5 patients at a time.
Since LPNs care for patients with a lower acuity, they have higher patient loads during a single shift; sometimes as many as a dozen or more at a time. Some LPNs even report that they have cared for up to 30 during shifts at senior care centers.
LPN Job Duties
LPNs perform various duties, such as:
- Collecting and charting vital signs
- Distributing oral medications
- Checking blood sugar levels
- Ambulating, assistance with activities of daily living (such as getting dressed or eating/drinking)
- Assisting with bathing and toileting
- Other various patient care tasks
RN Job Duties
RNs also perform many of the same LPN duties as well. However, the scope of practice for the RN is broader. It includes other responsibilities, such as:
- Assessing patients
- Starting IVs
- Distributing oral and IV medications
- Collecting blood samples
- Performing physical exams
- Conducting various diagnostics tests
- Educating patients and families
- Working with physicians to determine patient treatment plans
- Counseling patients
- Coordinating treatments with ancillary healthcare professionals (such as physical therapy, nutrition consults, wound care consults, or diabetes specialist consults, to name a few).
Part Three RN vs LPN Educational Differences
The curriculum for both an LPN and RN includes classes on ethics and nursing skills, and both require successful completion of hands-on clinical rotations. But there are some distinct differences between the programs:
Education for an LPN can be completed at a vocational school or junior college. Programs are usually about one year in length and require successful completion of both classroom and clinical hours.
LPN programs can vary significantly in price from $7,000 to $40,000.
The standard curriculum for an LPN will include:
- Introduction To Nursing
- Legal And Ethical Aspects Of Nursing
- Nursing Theory
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Documentation and Medical Terminology
- Lifespan Growth and Development
- Infection Control and Prevention
- Patient Safety
- Medication Administration
- Basic Patient Care: Hygiene, Mobility, Comfort & Rest
- Med Surg Nursing
- Mental Health
Education for an RN ranges in length from two years for an associate’s degree in nursing from a community college (ADN) to four years for a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN).
The cost to become an RN depends on the level of education you achieve. Earning an ADN from a community college can range from $10,000-$15,000. In contrast, a BSN from a 4-year university can range in price from $35,000 to $110,000.
The standard curriculum for an RN will include:
- Nursing Fundamentals
- Ethics in Nursing
- Nursing Theory
- Biomedical Statistics
- Anatomy and physiology
- Nursing Assessment
- Mental Health
- Emergency Care
- Population-based Practice
- Clinical rotation requirements for each specialty
Part Four RN Licensing vs LPN Licensing
Licensure requirements and maintenance for LPN and RNs vary from state to state, and it is essential to understand your state’s individual requirements. But these are the primary differences between the two:
Licensure for an LPN requires:
- A diploma from an accredited, licensed vocational, or community college LPN program.
- Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN) for certification to practice in the United States.
- Renewal of your LPN license every two years by completing your state’s required hours for continuing education.
Licensure for an RN requires:
- Graduation from a nursing school accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).
- Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX- RN) to be licensed as a registered nurse.
- Renewal of your RN license every two years by completing your state’s continuing education requirement hours.
Part Five Differences in Pay & Career Outlook for RNs and LPNs
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2021 median pay for an LPN/LVN was $48,070 per year or $23.11 per hour.
The career outlook for LPNs is bright. Growth in the profession is projected to increase by 6% between 2021-2031 (much faster than for average occupations). There will be an increase of 41,300 LPNs needed to fill those positions.
For RNs, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the 2021 median pay for an RN was $77,600 per year or $37.31 per hour.
The RN profession is expected to grow by 6% between 2021-2031. There is a projected need for an additional 195,400 nurses to fill open positions.
Part Six RN vs LPN Differences in Career Advancement
Both RNs and LPNs have an excellent opportunity for career advancement by gaining more work experience and higher education.
LPN career advancement opportunities include moving into alternative healthcare environments, including physician offices, mental health institutions, geriatric facilities, physician offices, and home health care. An LPN may also consider advancing their education by completing an LPN to RN bridge program to work as a registered nurse.
RNs also have excellent career advancement opportunities by moving into various areas of the hospital or institution setting. RNs may want to consider moving into leadership or educator roles and gain higher administrative experience.
Also, RNs may consider advancing their career potential with higher education through one of the following pathways:
- RN to BSN (if you don’t already have a BSN)
- MSN (Masters of Science in Nursing)
- NP (Nurse Practitioner)
- DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice)
Part Seven How Do You Decide Between Becoming an LPN or an RN?
There are many important factors to consider if you are deciding between becoming an RN or an LPN. To start, spend some time thinking about your ultimate career goals. That may help you figure out how much time and money you will need to invest in getting yourself into a career that fits you.
Either way, the professions are backbones for the healthcare profession with a shared goal: to give the highest level of patient care possible.