What’s the difference between an LPN and RN?

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN) and Registered Nurses (RN) are both nurses, but their education and scope of practice are different.

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The word nurse encompasses two types of licenses: licensed practical nurse (LPN*) and registered nurse (RN). LPNs are prepared through condensed vocational programs, while RNs are prepared via college degree programs.  LPNs tend to work in long-care facilities with chronic care patients while RNs can work in all different types of medical environments. 

Already decided you want to get your RN license? Check out this article to help you choose a program.

*licensed practical nurses (LPN) and licensed vocational nurses (LVN) have the same educational requirements. The term LVN is used in TX and CA. For our purposes, we’ll just say LPN.

LPN versus RN at-a-glance:

LPN: 
  • Tuition: $10,000-15,000
  • Length of study: about one year  or a bit longer if you do your LPN part-time
  • Diploma Earned: An LPN certificate 
  • Licensure Exam: National Council Licensure Examination - Practical Nursing (NCLEX-PN)
  • Median Salary: $47,480
RN: 
  • Tuition: ADN $3,000-20,000+, BSN $40,000-100,000+ +, MSN $35,000-60,000+
  • Length of study: 13-22 months (accelerated BSN/MS/MSN programs), 2 years (most ADN programs) and 4 years (traditional collegiate BSN)
  • Diploma earned: Associate’s degree nursing (ADN) program, a Bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) program or an entry-into-practice Master’s of science program (MS/MSN) 
  • Licensure exam: National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)
  • Median salary: $73,300

If they’re both nurses, why are their career paths so different?

RNs and LPNs are prepared differently because their trainings have different goals. LPN preparation is designed to create nurses who can excel with practical skills. While RNs will learn to perform skills but add in a higher level of academic and critical thinking training. Because of these differences, LPNs tend to work in long-term care while RNs have more flexibility as to practice setting. 

LPN and RN licenses differ in their scope of practice. Scope of practice is a legal term referring to the allowed duties of a healthcare worker under a particular license. These duties are defined by each state’s Nursing Practice Acts (NPA). Although details vary from state to state, here are the main differences between these two types of nursing licenses.

LPN

Scope of practice:  Takes vital signs, performs basic patient assessments, administers medications, handles activities of daily living (ADLs) which include baths, mouth care, dressing, turning, etc., does some procedures and maintains patient records.

Practice setting: Most LPNs work in long-term care facilities or with patient’s who require chronic medical care like the elderly or ventilator-dependent populations. These offer the benefit of getting to know your patients and helping them in their daily lives. There are also some LPN positions in physician offices and schools.

RN: 

Scope of practice: Takes vital signs, performs in-depth patient assessments, administers medications (including complex infusions, blood, sedation and chemotherapy), manages ADLs either by performing them or by delegating to an LPN or nursing assistant, does specialized procedures, writes charts, researches and develops care plans.

Practice setting: RNs can work in all of the LPN settings and add higher level hospitals and research institutions. They can also find careers in hundreds of other ancillary fields like healthcare administration, billing, pharmaceuticals and legal consultancy

Bottom line

There’s no right choice for everyone, so just decide which license is right for you, your life and your goals.