The demand for health care in the United States is skyrocketing, and opportunities for nurses continue to expand. But for students considering a career in nursing, the difference between the two most common roles, a registered nurse, or RN, and a licensed practical nurse, or LPN, can be confusing.
Registered vs. Licensed Practical Nurses
All nurses are professional caregivers focused on improving the well-being of their patients and communities. They’re required to meet minimum education standards set by state regulators and pass a licensing exam proving they have the skills to work as both autonomous health care providers and as part of a multidisciplinary medical team.
However, while aptitude and experience play a role in the types of positions for which RNs and LPNs are ultimately qualified, it’s training that defines their legal scope of practice and, to a great extent, what they can do on the job and their potential for advancement.
Education Requirements and Scope of Practice
An RN has two or more years of nursing education. The curriculum for registered nurses is similar to that of practical nurses when it comes to hands-on skills, but other courses deepen their knowledge of the scientific principles behind what nurses do.
Classes such as psychopathology delve deeper into medicine, so when they graduate, RNs can not only perform practical skills, they know how to troubleshoot complex medical issues and make broader decisions about their patients’ care.
LPNs can get a diploma from a vocational school. Training is focused primarily on practical skills and less scientific theory, and fewer general education courses are required. With less to focus on, LPN students can be ready to work in under a year.
Where Do RNs and LPNs Work?
RNs and LPNs work side-by-side in the same settings, from hospitals and doctors’ offices to nursing facilities and patients’ homes. Their job descriptions are similar, but because their education differs, each has responsibilities unique to their scope of practice.
In an acute care setting like hospitals, RNs have the education and professional judgment necessary to manage unstable patients with technically complex medical needs. They plan the delivery of all nursing care and assess the outcome of interventions.
Nursing assessment, the process of evaluating a patient’s needs for the purpose of planning care, is traditionally the responsibility of registered nurses. In most cases, federal regulations require that an RN either completes a patient’s plan of care or approves it if done by an LPN.
Where patients are the sickest, LPNs serve as front-line caregivers under the supervision of an RN or a physician. Duties of an LPN in a hospital may include these functions.
- Helping patients eat, bathe, groom, and dress
- Taking vital signs
- Administering routine oral medications
- Changing light dressings
- Inserting urinary catheters
- Testing blood glucose
- Tracking intake and output
- Assisting with therapeutic exercises
- Aiding with emergency care
- Transporting patients to other departments for diagnostic testing
RNs do these tasks and more. It’s their function to perform the following duties, as well.
- Develop a comprehensive nursing plan of care
- Administer high-risk medications, including blood products
- Monitor patients for their response to therapy
- Interpret and report changes in condition
- Perform complicated treatments
- Initiate emergency care
One difference is that LPNs have less professional autonomy than RNs in acute care settings because their scope of practice is limited, but nurses who prefer hands-on care will thrive in the role.
The role of nurses in doctors’ offices has shifted in the past decade. Medical assistants, cross-trained to handle both administrative and clinical functions at this level, have taken over many of the day-to-day duties once done by nurses, while RNs and LPNs have assumed more managerial oversight.
In this setting, an LPN’s duties may overlap with a medical assistant’s.
- Greeting and rooming patients
- Reviewing medical complaints, allergy lists, and current medications
- Taking height, weight, and vital signs
- Performing routine eye exams
- Administering immunizations and injectable medications
- Collecting samples for the lab
- Removing sutures
- Assisting with surgical procedures
- Answering patients’ health questions
RNs typically serve in specialty roles such as patient navigators, educators, and managers, or in practices that offer complex medical services such as infusion therapy.
Long-Term Care Facilities
An LPN’s skills were tailor-made for long-term care patients who need the help of a nurse but are clinically stable. These are some of the responsibilities of an LPN in long-term care facilities.
- Administering medications and treatments
- Collecting blood, urine, and other lab samples
- Dressing wounds
- Monitoring for changes in physical condition
- Assisting with mobility and personal care
- Managing appointments with health care providers
- Providing companionship and emotional support
- Ensuring all care is documented
- Providing emergency care
- Supporting family members
- Supervising nursing assistants
Because LPNs can meet the needs of most nursing home patients, they often qualify for supervisory positions, and with experience, they can become nurse managers. In assisted living centers where the population is even less acute, LPNs may be directors.
RNs in long-term care may hold similar positions up to the highest echelons of leadership, but their skills are more often used to assess high-risk patients and to perform or monitor complex treatments. For example, in many states, an LPN can give IV medications, but only under the supervision of an RN because of the risk of serious complications.
Long-term care environments offer professional autonomy and significant opportunities for growth for all nurses, but especially for LPNs.
Home Health Care
LPNs have the ideal blend of training and professional autonomy to meet the needs of most home health patients with the support of an RN. Here are some of an LPN’s responsibilities.
- Assisting with activities of daily living and homemaking
- Reporting changes in condition to the physician
- Administering medication and performing routine treatments
- Educating patients and family on self-care
- Managing home medical equipment and supplies including oxygen, ventilators, and tube feeding pumps
- Transporting clients to medical appointments
With a broader base of nursing knowledge, RNs create the comprehensive care plans that guide LPNs in meeting home health patients’ physical, emotional, and psychosocial needs. They also function as a training resource for LPNs, answering questions about new treatments or how to handle nursing challenges.
Choosing the Right Pathway to a Nursing Career
There’s no right or wrong way to approach a nursing career, but the fastest way to get started is to enroll in a vocational school LPN program. Courses of study are typically shorter, less costly, and more flexible than degree programs. LPNs are ready to make a difference in less than a year.
In twelve months or less, graduates can be out of the classroom and earning money on the job. It’s an ideal pathway for students of all ages who want to graduate with less debt and for adult learners looking for a second career without being out of work for too long. Becoming an LPN is also an attractive option for students who want to be registered nurses but who can’t afford to be without income for two years or more.
As an LPN, vocational school graduates get valuable experience that they can use as a steppingstone to higher education. Admission to RN programs is highly selective, space is limited, and waiting lists can be long. Some colleges give automatic preference to LPNs in the admission process.
For students who want a career in nursing but aren’t yet sure what type of role they’d prefer, being an LPN also lets them get their feet wet. Nursing is as diverse as it is rewarding, but it can be tough for new graduates to find where they fit in.
Working in different environments and getting a feel for what they entail paves the way for making better long-term career decisions. While they’re at it, students also network and make connections that can lead to opportunities. Many employers offer tuition reimbursement programs for LPNs who want to be RNs if they will work for them after they graduate.
Part of choosing the best educational path forward is also considering career goals. RNs and LPNs share similar responsibilities, and their job descriptions are often indistinguishable, yet with experience, their paths diverge.
The demand for health care is expected to rise sharply in the next two decades, and the need for both RNs and LPNs is growing. For students, there’s no better time to consider a rewarding career in nursing, and while the pathways to success may differ, the destination is the same.
Did learning about the differences between a registered nurse (RN) and licensed practical nurse (LPN) interest you? Ready for an exciting new career in the health care field?
The Practical Nursing certificate program provides the graduate with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to function as a licensed practical nurse, or LPN.
Part of the practical nurse training curriculum is devoted to theory and the rest to hands-on laboratory skills, practice, and off-site clinical externship rotations. These rotations include work at long-term care and rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, and childbearing and pediatric outpatient settings.
Upon successful completion of NCLEX-PN, the National Council Licensure Examination, which is a nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses in the United States, the licensed practical nurse (LPN) works under the direction of a registered nurse or licensed physician in a variety of health care settings.
Contact us today to find out more about how to become an LPN on Long Island.