Practical Nurse vs. RN (Registered Nurse)

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

Nurses also comprise the largest component of the healthcare workforce, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. They are the primary providers of patient care in hospitals and deliver the majority of long-term care in the U.S. Plus, 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 the positions of practical nurse and registered nurse (RN).

Current nurses interested in advancing their careers will find that completing a baccalaureate degree, such as an RN to BSN online, can prepare them with the knowledge and skills to pursue higher-level nursing positions.

A group of nurses standing outside a hospital.

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 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 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 that aspiring LPNs pass the exam before they can work in their field.

LPN Job Responsibilities

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 supervisors. 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 who wish 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 allows them to become registered nurses 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.

RN Job Responsibilities

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 because 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 advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). This 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.

Practical Nurse vs. RN: Similarities

There are some similarities between practical nurse and RN educational requirements.

Educational and Licensing Similarities

LPNs and RNs both require specialized education. Courses within nurse education programs cover a variety of health-related topics such as anatomy and biology. Upon completing their coursework, graduates of LPN and RN programs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) before they can work as licensed nurses.

Work Environment Similarities

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. Individuals working in private practice offices often work Monday through Friday during standard business hours; however, professionals employed at facilities that provide 24-hour care, such as nursing facilities, hospice care centers, and hospitals, among others, may be required to work night, weekend, and holiday shifts.

Practical Nurse vs. RN: Differences

Although practical nurses and registered nurses provide patient care, they have different job duties, educational 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 two to 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 versus 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 but 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 non-occupational illnesses and injuries. Other duties of RNs vary, depending on their work environments and the patients they care for. Oncology nurses, for example, 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 supervisory roles in their organizations, 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 roles. RNs complete more rigorous training, preparing them for more responsibilities and leadership. RNs typically oversee LPNs, and many continue their education to pursue more advanced positions.

LPN and RN Salaries

Another key difference between LPNs and RNs relates to earning potential. Although professionals in both fields provide care to patients, RNs earn more than LPNs, since they have a broader scope of responsibilities.

LPN Salaries

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows as of May 2021, the median annual wage for LPNs was $48,070. Earners in the top 10th percentile reported annual earnings of more than $67,790.

RN Salaries

Meanwhile, the median annual wage for registered nurses was in the same period was $77,600, with the highest 10% reporting earnings of more than $120,250 per year, according to the BLS.

Factors That Influence LPN and RN Salary Ranges

Salary ranges for both positions vary widely based on a variety of factors, such as an individual’s experience level, the facility where they work, and the geographical region of the position. For example, nurses in high-cost-of-living states, such as California, often report higher salaries than those living in low-cost-of-living states, such as West Virginia. Different types of nurses with specific specialties may also earn more.

LPN and RN Job Outlook

The need for nurses continues to grow, particularly as the American population ages and chronic disease becomes more prevalent.

LPN Job Outlook

The BLS reports employment of LPNs is projected to grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030, which is about as fast as what’s projected for all other occupations. The BLS estimates approximately 60,700 positions for LPNs will become available each year during that period.

RN Job Outlook

The BLS also reports employment of registered nurses is projected to grow by 9% percent between 2020 and 2030, although that accounts for a greater number of positions. The BLS projects approximately 194,500 job openings for RNs will become available each year within that decade.

Practical Nurse vs. RN: Which One Is Right for You?

The healthcare industry needs nurses now more than ever. At Maryville University, the RN to BSN online program helps RNs develop their skills on an accelerated track to complete their Bachelor of Science in Nursing degrees. The Maryville coursework is continually updated, based on employer feedback and industry trends, to help students develop the relevant expertise to thrive in nursing today.

Ready to pursue an education that can enhance your ability to deliver quality healthcare? Maryville University’s RN to BSN program is designed to build on your experience and boost your nursing career.

Recommended Reading

How Nurses Impact Quality of Care

The Top 8 Nonclinical Skills Needed to Be an Excellent Nurse

NCLEX Study Tips and Resources for Students


American Nurses Association, What Is Nursing?

The Balance Careers, Licensed Practical Nurse

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses