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RN vs LPN: What’s the difference?

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Nursing can be an extremely rewarding career path. It offers you the chance to improve lives through direct patient care and play an essential role supporting physicians as they develop and implement treatment plans. What’s more, the nursing field can provide many different options for you to advance your career. One of the most important choices you might make as a nurse will be whether to practice as a registered nurse (RN) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN).


Is the difference between an RN vs. LPN really that significant? At first glance, the two designations may seem similar. For example, both RNs and LPNs treat patients by administering medicine, changing bandages, and providing pre- and post-operation care, among many other responsibilities. Additionally, both the RN and LPN allow you to qualify for jobs in a hospital, clinic, or private practice.


A closer look at these two paths reveals substantive differences in their education requirements, scope of practice, and overall level of responsibility. If you’re considering a career in nursing, the best way to decide which degree is right for you is by understanding the distinctions between RN vs. LPN certifications.


 What does an RN do?

To better understand the distinctions between the two roles, it may be useful to summarize the basic responsibilities of each. First, what does an RN do?

RN job description

As an RN, your basic role is to provide direct patient care. In addition to serving patients, RNs assist family members by offering emotional support while a loved one goes through treatment, and by teaching family members how to provide at-home care for their loved one. RNs can also play an important role in patient education by sharing key information about nutrition, medication management, and other important lifestyle-related topics with their patients.


It’s important to note the many subspecialties are available for RNs. For example, an RN may work in critical care, pediatrics, women’s health, or oncology. Some RNs work in primary care, while others may work in two different specialties at once, like pediatric oncology.

RN duties and responsibilities

What does an RN do? The most common daily duties and responsibilities of an RN include the following:


  • Implementing the physician’s orders. An RN may be tasked with carrying out specific parts of the physician’s treatment plan. This can include administering medication, starting an IV, running a diagnostic test, or documenting a treatment in the patient’s file.
  • Performing diagnostic testing. Many RNs are charged with ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, which allows them to better assess a patient’s condition or prognosis.
  • Monitoring the patient’s condition. Nurses often play an essential role in monitoring patients’ conditions, including their responses to different medications and treatments, all of which may be documented in patients’ files and shared with the attending physician.
  • Providing care for wounds and injuries. Another common responsibility of an RN is to address minor patient injuries, as well as help patients clean wounds and change their dressings.


While the physician determines the overall trajectory of patient care, an RN’s input is often sought when creating a patient care plan. Additionally, many RNs are given the authority to apply sound judgment in their response to basic patient needs. For example, an RN may decide to administer additional medication for a patient who continues to struggle with sharp pain.

RN requirements: How to become an RN

RNs have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on patient care. You might be asking yourself, “what are the steps for becoming an RN?” Below, we’ll delve deeper into the RN requirements, including both education and licensing.

RN education

To become an RN, it’s important to have the right academic foundation. This usually means having either a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). A nurse diploma is also valid, though fewer nursing programs offer the diploma option. A BSN degree will typically take four years, while an ADN may take as few as two years. Any of these degree programs will provide you with foundational knowledge in anatomy, pharmacology, and the basic tenets of patient care.

RN licensing

Becoming an RN also requires passing a national licensing exam: the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). The NCLEX-RN, which the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) administers, is primarily a multiple-choice exam that covers different topics and issues related to patient care.

Key skills for success as an RN

The primary purpose of the RN requirements is to ensure that those who enter the field as practicing nurses have the core skills necessary to support physicians, care for patients, and advise patients’ family members. The most essential RN skills you’ll need as an RN include the following:


  • Empathy. RNs are tasked with providing compassionate care and demonstrating concern for the well-being of patients and their families.
  • Organization. RNs need to be meticulous about documentation and record-keeping to ensure the safety of each patient.
  • Critical thinking. RNs must be prepared to assess patient conditions and concerns and make care decisions on the fly.
  • Emotional stability. RNs witness illness, injury, and suffering, thus making it crucial for them to be able to remain steady and calm in the face of trauma.


If you’re able to develop these skills, you’re a good candidate for a career as an RN.

RN salary and job outlook

If you’re considering a career as an RN, you’ll likely have questions about the average salary levels and job outlook.

RN salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for an RN was $75,330 in 2020. Numerous factors can impact the RN salary, including the following:


  • Level of education. RNs with more robust education may command higher salaries.
  • Years of experience. Typically, more experienced nurses earn more.
  • Geographic location. Salaries may fluctuate by region, depending on local demand for nurses.
  • Type of facility. Nurses who work at for-profit hospitals can anticipate higher salaries than those who work in public health clinics.

Job outlook for RNs

The BLS projects that demand for RNs will grow at a rate of 7% from 2019 to 2029, higher than the projected average for all occupations. The forecast may be due to an aging population and the rise in health care needs, as well as the looming shortage of qualified physicians.

What does an LPN do?

While the role of the LPN overlaps the role of the RN, some important differences exist.

LPN job description

LPNs perform numerous duties related to patient care, but they may perform these tasks under the direction of a physician or RN. Like RNs, LPNs can also work in hospitals, private practice settings, long-term care facilities, or clinics.

LPN duties and responsibilities

What does an LPN do? The daily duties and responsibilities of an LPN include the following basics:


  • Monitoring patients. LPNs are often tasked with keeping an eye on vital signs and general conditions, making certain that the patient is safe and comfortable throughout treatment or recovery.
  • Ensuring patient comfort. While patients undergo different procedures, LPNs may assist them with food or beverages, medications, or assistance with trips to the restroom.
  • Discussing care. LPNs listen to patients’ concerns and also relay treatment information from the attending physician or RN. Like RNs, LPNs communicate with patients and their family members, offering emotional support and clinical guidance as needed.
  • Keeping patient records. LPNs may also be charged with documenting patient needs and treatments and ensuring that medical records are up to date.
  • Providing basic care. LPNs can also provide basic clinical care, including first aid and wound care, for patients in need.


Generally speaking, LPNs carry out nursing duties that are less complex than those of RNs, but more complex than those of nurse aides. They play a crucial role in promoting patient safety and well-being through different tests, treatments, and procedures.

LPN requirements: How to become an LPN

Although LPNs have slightly less responsibility than RNs, they must still develop the proper skills and clinical competencies. Below are some of the basic LPN requirements.

LPN education

The educational requirements for an LPN are to complete either a certificate or diploma program; schools, technical colleges, and even some hospitals offer such programs. While some LPNs go as far as obtaining a two- or four-year degree, licensure to become an LPN doesn’t require this.

LPN licensing

LPNs must complete the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN). Comprising mostly multiple-choice questions, the exam covers basic and advanced patient care scenarios. Some LPNs may also seek additional certification in different clinical specialties, including hospice care or IV therapy.

Key skills for success as an LPN

Fulfilling the LPN requirements is an important way for nurses to develop the right skills and core competencies required for effective patient care. Examples of vital LPN skills are:


  • Patience. One of the most challenging aspects of being an LPN is providing compassionate care for individuals who are afflicted by pain or distress and who, in some cases, may have trouble complying with their physician’s advice. Effective LPNs have a patient bedside manner.
  • Physical strength and stamina. LPNs spend most of each day on their feet, and they also help patients with tasks such as getting dressed or bathing, if needed. Physical stamina and endurance can go a long way.
  • Communication. LPNs also benefit from good communication skills. Their job requires them to communicate with patients and families about the treatment plan and with doctors and other nurses about patients’ conditions.

LPN salary and job outlook

If you wish to pursue a career as an LPN, you’ll want to know about the kind of salary to expect, as well as the general job prospects in the nursing profession.

LPN salary

According to the BLS, the median annual LPN salary was $48,820 in 2020. As with the RN salary, the LPN salary can vary depending on several different factors, including the following:


  • Years of experience. If you have more experience, you’ll typically earn a higher salary.
  • Geographic location. The pay rate can also vary by geography, depending on the local demand for nurses.
  • Work environment. According to the BLS, LPNs who work in nursing and residential care facilities tend to make more than those who work in hospitals, and those who work in hospitals generally earn a little more than those who work in private practices.

Job outlook for LPNs

The BLS shows robust job growth for LPNs. In fact, LPN jobs are predicted to grow 9% between 2019 and 2029, which is considerably faster than the projected average for all professions and a little faster than the projected job growth rate for RNs. The BLS attributes this to the aging baby boomer population and the projected spike in demand for health care services. In particular, BLS data shows that job needs are expected to grow in residential care and home health facilities, which tend to focus on eldercare.

RN vs. LPN: Key distinctions

If you want to play a direct role in administering patient care and supporting clinical treatment, both RN and the LPN tracks offer a lot of opportunities. However, the two roles are also different from each other in some important ways.

Scope of practice

One of the biggest points of distinction between RN vs. LPN roles is the scope of practice. Scope of practice encompasses the level of independence and autonomy that a specific nursing license can provide for you.


Scope of practice can vary from one state to the next, as each state’s nursing board determines precisely what RNs and LPNs are empowered to do. With that said, the RN role always comes with added autonomy and a broader scope of practice. In other words, RNs can complete more tasks on their own, without the need to seek approval from a physician. By contrast, the tasks that LPNs complete typically require more oversight from either a physician or an RN.

Care process

The clinical care process can be divided into four basic sections:


  • Assessment of the patient’s condition
  • Development of a treatment plan
  • Implementation of a treatment plan
  • Evaluation of the treatment plan


RNs and LPNs come in at different parts of this process; for example, the RN usually performs the initial assessment of a new patient. Regarding inpatient care, RNs may also perform daily assessments, which includes checking for any changes in the patient’s condition. The role of the LPN in patient assessment is more limited. While the LPN may take some vital signs, this information is usually reported to an RN or physician, who will use that information to help develop or fine-tune the treatment plan.


As another example of the differences between an RN vs. LPN, consider the development and implementation of the treatment plan. The RN tends to be more involved with determining what the patient needs, while the LPN may play a greater role in providing it. For example, the RN may assess the patient’s condition and decide that the patient needs to get up and walk around the hospital wing twice daily, but it may fall to the LPN to actually physically assist the patient with their movements and exercise.

Critical thinking and decision-making

Generally speaking, RNs are involved in the development of a patient care plan, which may involve collaboration with the physician. By contrast, an LPN may make suggestions or provide observations about what the patient needs, but it ultimately falls to the RN to make any final decisions. As such, the role of the RN tends to involve a higher level of critical thinking, which reflects the added educational requirements.


RNs must attend school longer, use more critical thinking, and do more work autonomously, so their pay level tends to be a little bit more robust.

Choosing your path in the nursing profession

If you want to improve the lives of patients and offer much-needed support for family members and loved ones, nursing creates many opportunities to act as a caring and compassionate caretaker. One of the first, most crucial decisions you’ll make as a nursing student is whether you wish to pursue credentials as an RN or LPN. This decision will have a direct impact on your educational path, day-to-day responsibilities, salary, and more. With that said, both paths provide a chance to make a real-world difference in the health care setting, and only you know which path is right for you.


A good way to further decide between RN vs. LPN credentialing is to use our recommendation engine, which can help you locate the best academic programs to fulfill your nursing dreams, no matter which degree you’re interested in. 


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