Medical Assistants vs. Licensed Practical Nurses: Diagnosing the Differences

female medical assistant talking to patient with pen in her hand

As you research your future career path, you’re pretty certain you’d like to do something in the healthcare field. You feel called to help others and think you have the passion and drive to succeed in this growing area. When comparing different career options though, you have questions on who does what and 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 whether you’re better suited to become a medical assistant (MA) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN).

MA vs. LPN: The basics

These jobs are commonly confused because of the slight overlap in job duties. While both medical assistants and licensed practical nurses work under the supervision of a physician or registered nurse (RN), one of the biggest differences is where people in each of these professions tend to work. Medical assistants typically work in clinics or ambulatory care. Licensed practical nurses typically work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Both can be found in hospitals, but each have different responsibilities there.

Medical assistants perform administrative and clinical duties. In an office, they can be responsible for recording patient information using electronic health record software, filling out insurance forms and scheduling patient appointments. On the clinical side, they assist physicians with patient examinations, measuring vital signs, giving injections and changing dressings.

Licensed practical nurses are responsible for more of the caregiving side of medicine. They provide basic medical care such as checking blood pressure, ensuring the comfort of patients, reporting on patient health to doctors and other nurses, inserting catheters and recording patient health. In some states, LPNs can even give medication or start an IV drip.

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 checkups for inpatient visits.

MA vs. LPN: Skills required

To help highlight the differences and similarities between these two healthcare careers, we’ve taken a look at active job listings to determine what skills are required for each position. We used real-time job analysis software from Burning-Glass.com to analyze more than 280,000 MA and LPN jobs posted over the past year.1

Postings for MAs prioritized skills in vital signs measurement, scheduling, medical assistance and appointment setting. LPN job postings included more technical skills such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), treatment planning and teaching. As you can see, these groups of skills are closely aligned with the descriptions of each position in the section above.

However, because both medical assistants and licensed practical nurses chiefly work with people, both have the top skill of patient care. If you’re looking for a patient-facing job, either of these positions would suit that need.

MA vs. LPN: Salary & job outlook

No matter which of these two professions you choose, the future is looking bright! The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 12 percent growth in employment for licensed practical nurses from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than the average for all occupations, and projects a whopping 29 percent growth in employment for medical assistants.2 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 wage in 2017 for LPNs was $45,030, which is higher than the national average of $37,690.2 On the other hand, the BLS reports medical assistants made a median annual wage of $32,480.2

MA vs. LPN: Education and training

If you’re beginning to lean toward either one of these professions, you may be wondering what kind of education and training you would have to undergo 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. The BLS states that many states do not have formal education requirements for this career. However, prospective MAs may find it helpful to complete a postsecondary Medical Assisting program. These programs take one to two years to complete and include lessons in anatomy and medical terminology, as well as a laboratory component.

LPNs have more rigid qualifications to complete. Candidates must graduate from a state-approved licensed practical nursing program—which can be completed in as few as 12 months.3 After graduating, they must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination for practical nurses (NCLEX-PN) before they’ll be approved to work as an LPN.

Which option is right 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, 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.

1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of MA and LPN job postings, Mar. 1, 2018 – Feb. 28, 2019).
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed March 2019] 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.
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 2019.

Anna Heinrich

Anna is a Copywriter at Collegis Education who researches and writes student-focused content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes the power of the written word can help educate and assist students on their way to a rewarding education. 

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