Comparing Nursing Degree Certificate: Practical Nurse vs. RN

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Nurses are crucial to the effective functioning of a medical facility, providing quality patient care and treatment through a combination of empathy and expertise.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), nurses comprise the largest component of the healthcare workforce. They are the primary providers of patient care in hospitals and deliver the majority of long-term care in the U.S. Given the spectrum of health services in the U.S., the roles of nurses in the healthcare system have become increasingly varied. Their responsibilities differ depending on their work environment, the types of patients they care for and the training and education they receive. If you’re considering pursuing a career in nursing, there are many options, among them practical nurse and registered nurse (RN).

Group of nurses pose together.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Overview

To understand the difference between a practical nurse and an RN, it’s important to know the duties and skills associated with each role. Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) work under the direction of registered nurses (RNs) and doctors to provide basic nursing care to patients.

LPNs must complete a state-approved, one-year training program at an accredited technical school or community college. These programs include both classroom study and supervised clinical practice. Coursework covers health-related topics such as biology, anatomy, nursing, pharmacology and human diseases. This training prepares LPNs to provide patient care to those who are sick, disabled, convalescing, or injured.

After completing LPN education and training and receiving a certificate or diploma, LPNs must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-PN, administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. All states require passage of the exam to work as an LPN.

What do licensed practical nurse graduates do?

LPN program graduates can apply their skills in a variety of careers. LPN duties often include providing basic patient care such as changing bandages, checking vital signs, inserting catheters, and helping patients bathe or dress. They are also responsible for monitoring patients’ health status and reporting any concerns to their supervisor. LPNs work with patients in hospitals, private practices, mental health centers, and other medical facilities.

As LPNs gain experience, they may have the opportunity to supervise nursing assistants and aides. LPNs may also choose to become certified in a specialty area such as gerontology, long-term care, intravenous (IV) therapy, or pharmacology. LPNs wishing to advance to a higher level supervisory role or one with more responsibility may continue their education through an LPN-to-RN training program. This would allow them to become registered nurses and continue their schooling by pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.

Registered Nurse (RN) Overview

Becoming an RN requires the completion of a two-year education program to earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a diploma from a state-approved nursing program. However, some RNs choose to attend a four-year college or university to earn a BSN degree.

A major difference between a practical nurse and an RN is the length and breadth of their education. The RN program is more in-depth, preparing students for a role with more responsibility. Classes include anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, psychology, and other social and behavioral sciences. All programs include supervised clinical experience. In all states, registered nurses must receive licensure by graduating from an approved nursing program and passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Requirements for licensing vary by state, so aspiring RNs should check the requirements in the state where they want to work.

What do registered nurse (RN) graduates do?

RNs are in charge of providing and coordinating patient care; educating patients, families, and the community about health conditions; and offering emotional support to patients and their loved ones. RNs’ duties include administering medications; starting IVs; performing and ordering treatments, tests, or procedures; collaborating with medical staff to create patient care plans; and assessing patients’ needs in response to the care given.

RNs can work in various medical environments such as private practices, clinics, and senior living centers, but the majority work in hospitals. Many RNs choose a specialization either as a result of professional experience or during their schooling and go on to become certified in a specific area, such as pediatrics, gerontology, or ambulatory care. Certification is voluntary, but employers may require it, depending on the scope of the specific role. As RNs gain experience and continue their education, they often step into leadership roles. Management positions include assistant clinical nurse manager, charge nurse, and head nurse.

Many RNs choose to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, increasing their earning potential and job responsibilities. Some registered nurses opt to further their education with a master’s degree to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). That degree qualifies nurses to work in roles such as nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, or nurse practitioner. APRNs can provide primary and specialty care, and in many states, they can prescribe medications.

Similarities Between Practical Nurses and RNs

There are some similarities between practical nurse and RN educational requirements. Neither role requires a four-year bachelor’s degree, and both practical nurse and RN programs cover health-related topics such as anatomy and biology. LPNs and RNs work in the same kinds of healthcare settings, including hospitals, nursing facilities, and private practices. Both roles provide basic care to patients and are responsible for monitoring patients’ health. And both RN and LPN roles require state licensing to practice.

Differences Between Practical Nurses and RNs

Although both practical nurses and registered nurses provide patient care, they have different job duties, education requirements, and potential career paths.


Neither RNs nor LPNs must complete a four-year degree, though their education and training requirements differ. LPNs can complete their training in as little as one year through an LPN program at a technical, vocational, or junior college.

In contrast, registered nurses must earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, an associate degree, or a diploma in nursing, which typically requires between two and four years of schooling. RN programs include coursework similar to that of LPN programs, but some also require general education classes or courses in social and behavioral sciences or liberal arts.

Job Duties

When it comes to LPNs vs. RNs, it is important to understand their different job duties. LPNs are typically limited to monitoring patient health and attending to the basic needs of patients, such as changing dressings or assisting with bathing. In some states, LPNs can administer medication and start IVs, while in others, they can only perform these tasks under the supervision of an RN or doctor.

RNs not only provide patient care, they also communicate with patients and their families on health conditions, prevention, and treatment options. RNs also administer medications, start IVs, perform and order treatments, and provide primary and emergency care for occupational and nonoccupational illnesses and injuries. Other duties of RNs vary, depending on their work environment and the patients they care for. For example, oncology nurses work with cancer patients, whereas intensive care unit (ICU) nurses work in the ICUs of hospitals and provide complex care to patients with serious illnesses or injuries.

Career Paths

LPNs can progress to a supervisory role in their organization, depending on experience level, and may oversee nursing assistants or other LPNs. Additional education, like becoming an RN or earning a BSN can help advance the careers of LPNs interested in leadership and management. RNs complete more rigorous training, preparing them for more responsibilities and leadership roles. RNs typically oversee LPNs, and many continue their education to pursue more advanced positions.

The Need for Nursing Professionals

The need for nurses continues to grow, particularly as the American population ages and chronic disease becomes more prevalent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects more than 200,000 new registered nurse positions will become available between 2016 and 2026. Along with the new nursing positions being created, there will also be a reduction in the number of qualified nursing professionals in the workforce in the coming years. Nearly 700,000 nurses are expected to retire or leave their positions by 2024, requiring an influx of qualified nursing professionals to fill their roles.

Practical nurse vs. RN?  Anyone considering which career is best needs to understand the differences in educational requirements, job duties, level of responsibility, and growth potential. Both are in-demand medical professions with many growth opportunities.

Learn More

The healthcare industry needs nurses now more than ever. At Maryville University, the online RN to BSN degree helps RNs develop their skills on an accelerated track to complete their Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Maryville’s coursework is continually updated, based on employer feedback and industry trends, to help students develop the relevant expertise needed to thrive in nursing today. Ready to pursue an education that can enhance your ability to deliver quality healthcare to patients? Maryville University’s RN to BSN program is designed to build upon your experience and boost your nursing career.

American Nurses Association, What Is Nursing?

The Atlantic, “The U.S. Is Running Out of Nurses

The Balance Careers, Licensed Practical Nurse

Maryville University, Online RN to BSN

National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses, NALPN Mission, Values & Vision Statements

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses