Medical Assistants vs. Licensed Practical Nurses: Diagnosing the Differences
By Will Erstad on 06/15/2023
As you research your future career path, you’re just about certain you’d like to do something in the healthcare field. You might feel called to help others and think you have the passion and drive to succeed in this growing area. When comparing different career options in healthcare, though, you probably have a lot of questions to sort out. That’s totally understandable—the multitude of job titles (and the seemingly endless variety of important-looking abbreviations found after healthcare workers’ names) can leave your head spinning.
If you’re interested in working in direct patient care, you’ve likely speculated about the role of a medical assistant versus that of a licensed practical nurse. Well, wonder no longer. We’ve gathered the facts for you to see a side-by-side comparison of these two appealing healthcare careers.
Take a closer look at each position to help you determine whether you’re better suited to becoming a medical assistant (MA) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN).
Medical assistant vs. licensed practical nurse: Differences at a glance
So what’s the difference between working as a medical assistant or an LPN? Depending on the employer and the location they work in, medical assistants and LPNs can have some significant overlap in duties. In fact, there may be enough overlap that it seems to blur the line between the two to outside observers. That said, here are the biggest potential points of differentiation at a glance:
- Job duties
To help you better understand these distinctions, we’ll take a closer look at each.
Medical assistant vs. licensed practical nurse: Job duties
Both of these roles are patient-facing and can involve direct patient care under the supervision of a physician. Where the role of medical assistants tends to diverge from that of LPNs is that MAs typically focus their patient care efforts to relatively simple tasks like taking vital signs, collecting patient measurements, giving immunizations, collecting lab specimens and helping the physician as needed with patient prep.
MAs are often a “utility player” for their employer, and that can mean also taking on some of the administrative and clerical duties that aren’t typical for LPNs. These duties can include answering telephones, scheduling appointments, coordinating appointments and laboratory services, updating patient records, and the coding and completion of insurance forms. While the specific balance of these patient care and administrative duties will vary depending on the needs of the setting, most medical assistants can expect to take on a mix of both in their day-to-day work.
The duties of LPNs, on the other hand, are focused much more squarely on direct patient care. In addition to the direct patient care tasks MAs take on listed above, LPNs are also responsible for duties like changing bandages and wound dressings, catheterization, helping patients with personal hygiene care, administering medications, starting IVs (depending on local policies and regulations) and carrying out other tasks assigned within patient care plans.
Medical assistant vs. licensed practical nurse: Work settings
Another potential point of distinction between these roles can be found in the settings they typically work in. While it’s true you can find MAs and LPNs in practically any type of healthcare facility, there are certain settings that tend to be more common for each.
For medical assistants, you’re most likely to find them working in the offices of physicians (58%), hospitals (15%), outpatient care centers (9%) and chiropractic offices (4%), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 As you can see, often medical assistants find work in smaller ambulatory settings like clinics that can benefit from the versatility of medical assistants.
The largest employers of licensed practical (and vocational) nurses are nursing and residential care facilities (25%), hospitals (15%), home healthcare services (14%) and the offices of physicians (12%) according to the BLS.1 In the case of residential care facilities and home healthcare settings, LPNs can expect to maintain longer-term relationships with patients who depend on them for regular care—a departure from other settings where consistent patient visits may be less regular.
Medical assistant vs. licensed practical nurse: Licensure, training, and education requirements
If you’re beginning to lean toward either one of these professions, you may be wondering what kind of education, training and licensure requirements may lie ahead. There are some key distinctions here for MAs and LPNs, but the good news is that neither career path typically requires years-upon-years of formal education to get started.
If you’re looking for the shortest path into the healthcare field, becoming a medical assistant may be the better option of the two. For medical assistants, there are not currently any widely recognized postsecondary education or training requirements set by law (though things can change, so be sure to check this in the state you wish to practice in). It is technically possible to find medical assisting work with only a high school diploma if the employer is willing to provide on-the-job training.
That being said, the BLS reports that “most medical assistants have a postsecondary award such as a certificate.”1 With that in mind, it may help to seek out and complete a formal education program like the Rasmussen University Medical Assisting Diploma program where you’ll develop the essential medical assisting skills for you career—and sit for the in-demand Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) or Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) exams.2 This Diploma program can set you up with an appealing foundation of skills in as few as 12 months.3
Unlike medical assistants, LPNs are subject to earning state licensure (with requirements defined by state law). LPN candidates must graduate from a state-approved licensed practical nursing program and meet all other licensure requirements—like undergoing a criminal background check, providing proof of immunizations and successful completion of the National Council Licensure Examination for practical nurses (NCLEX-PN®). That might feel like a lot to take in at this stage, but the first step is to enroll in and complete an education program like the Rasmussen University Practical Nursing Diploma program, which can also be completed in as few as 12 months.3
For both education options, keep in mind that there may be entrance requirements you’ll need to meet, and depending on your background one option may be more viable than the other.
Medical assistant vs. licensed practical nurse: Salary and job outlook
No matter which of these two professions you choose to pursue, the future is looking bright! The BLS projects a 6 percent growth in employment for licensed practical nurses from 2021 to 2031, which equates to the need for an estimated additional 41,300 LPNs nationwide during that time period.2
The medical assistant job outlook is also on solid footing, with the BLS projecting employment of medical assistants growing by 16 percent from 2021 through 2031—that’s about 117,800 additional MAs during that time period. While obviously employment conditions will vary depending on your location, this is a solid positive indication of the demand for both LPNs and MAs nationwide.
As for salaries, the BLS reports that the median annual pay in 2021 for LPNs was $48,070, which is higher than the national average of $45,760.1 On the other hand, the BLS reports medical assistants made a 2021 median annual wage of $37,190.1
Which option is right for you?
Now that you have a better understanding of the roles of a medical assistant versus a licensed practical nurse, you should have a better idea of which career path aligns best with your interests and aspirations. Both positions play a vital role in the healthcare industry, so either way you’re in for a rewarding career.
If becoming a medical assistant interests you, you’ll want to check out our article “9 Notable Reasons to Become a Medical Assistant Now.”
If you’re leaning more toward licensed practical nursing, our article “How to Become an LPN: 5 Steps to Earning Your Scrubs” will give you added clarity on the road ahead of you.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed February 2023] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Graduates of our programmatically accredited programs can sit for the CMA or RMA exam; graduates of our non-programmatically accredited programs can sit for the RMA exam. Visit the accreditation page for full details regarding programmatic accreditation.
3Completion time is dependent on number of transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2015. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2023.
NCLEX-PN is a registered trademark of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc.