Medical Assistants vs. Licensed Practical Nurses: Diagnosing the Differences

 female medical assistant talking to patient with pen in her hand

Looking into working in the healthcare industry can leave you more than a little confused about who does what where. The multitude of job titles and abbreviations can leave you with your head spinning.

If you’re interested in working in direct patient care, you’ve likely speculated about the roles of a medical assistant versus a licensed practical nurse. Well wonder no longer. We gathered the facts for you to see a side-by-side comparison of these two in-demand healthcare careers.

Take a closer look at each position to help you determine if you’re better suited to become a medical assistant (MA) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN).

MA vs. LPN: the basics

One of the reasons these two positions are commonly confused is because there is a slight overlap in job duties. Both professionals work under the supervision of a physician or registered nurse (RN). But one of the biggest differences lies in the work settings. MAs usually work in clinics, hospitals or ambulatory care. LPNs tend to work in nursing homes, hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Most MAs are cross-trained in the front and the back office, meaning many of their duties are clerical in nature, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). They are responsible for recording patient information, showing patients to the examination rooms and interviewing them. The DOL reports the daily tasks of an LPN to include administering medications, starting intravenous fluids and responding to patient calls. LPNs also provide basic patient care, such as taking temperatures or blood pressures, dressing wounds, treating bedsores, massaging or performing catheterizations.

Generally speaking, picture MAs as the professionals assisting patients to their rooms, maintaining medical records and checking vitals for outpatient visits. Envision LPNs as the professionals administering medication and performing daily check-ups for inpatient visits.

MA vs. LPN: skills required

Both MAs and LPNs need reading comprehension, active listening and monitoring skills, according to the DOL. Speaking is listed as the number one skill for a MA, while “service orientation” is the top skill for LPNs.

We used real-time job analysis software from to analyze more than 225,000 MA and LPN jobs posted over the past year.* This data helped us identify the top skills employers are seeking in each position. Our analysis detected some crossover in skills for both positions, but there were some striking differences.

Postings for MAs prioritized skills in vital signs, scheduling and patient prep. LPN job postings highlighted skills in treatment planning, home health and medication administration. As you can see, these groups of skills are closely aligned with the descriptions of each position in the section above.

In many cases, both MAs and LPNs are one of the first faces to greet an admitted patient to the medical environment. Because of this, customer service and personal interaction are valuable qualities for both professions. The DOL reports that strong computer skills are highly valued for anyone applying as an MA, while a knowledge of psychology and counseling is highly valued for LPNs.

MA vs. LPN: salary & job outlook

Good news – the future is bright for both MA and LPN careers! The DOL projects positions in both fields to increase by 22 percent or more through 2022, which is much faster than the average growth rate of all occupations. The real difference between the two positions lies in the earning potential.

The 2014 median annual salary for an MA was $29,960, according to the DOL.** In comparison, the reported median annual salary for an LPN in 2014 was $42,490. The higher wages shouldn’t be surprising because, as mentioned above, LPNs are responsible for more in-depth patient care duties than MAs. The higher earning potential also comes with more extensive educational requirements.

MA vs. LPN: education and training

Speaking of educational requirements, that is another area in which these two professions differ. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are no formal education requirements for MAs in most states. However, the DOL states that 65 percent of employed MAs hold a post-secondary certificate.

The lack of formalized standard for MAs technically allows candidates to enter the field with no credentials and receive training while employed. However, the statistics indicate that most MAs do acquire a medical assisting certificate, which can be earned in as little as 12 months.

LPNs, however, must meet more rigid qualifications. Candidates must graduate from a state-approved licensed practical nursing program, which can also be completed in as few as 12 months. After graduating, they must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) before they’ll be approved to work as an LPN.

Which one is for you?

Now that you have a better understanding 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, learn more about the most desirable medical assisting skills.

If you’re leaning more towards licensed practical nursing, learn more about the important role LPNs play in the healthcare system.

* (analysis of 228,255 MA and LPN job postings, Aug. 1, 2014 – Jul. 31, 2015.)
**Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in January 2013. It has since been updated to reflect information relevant to 2015.

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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