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Practical Nursing vs. Professional Nursing: Understanding the Differences

practical versus professional nursing

Two paths, one destination—becoming a nurse. Nursing is a broad field that’s comprised of many roles, but which one is right for you? You have the heart and motivation to become a nurse, but first, you need to decide between the field’s two primary paths for entry: practical nursing or professional nursing.

Both are great places to start, but require different education levels and ultimately lead to different job duties, so depending on your life circumstances and career goals, one path might be better for you. The only way to decide is to get to know both. We broke down the definitions and details of both professional and practical nursing so you can make that decision for yourself.

What is practical nursing?

Practical nurses include licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs). Practical nurses are referred to as LVNs in Texas and California, while LPNs are the norm in every other state. Both LVNs and LPNs provide direct patient care to patients in a variety of healthcare settings, though you may find minor differences in duties or scope of practice from state to state. No matter where you’re from, practical nurses play an invaluable role on a health care team. 

If you decide to pursue practical nursing route, you can earn a Practical nursing diploma in as few as 12 months.1 After, you’ll take the National Council Licensure Exam for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN) to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN).

What do LPNs do?

LPNs are responsible for taking vitals, feeding, dressing and transporting patients, assisting with tests and procedures, and taking blood samples. LPNs spend a lot of time with patients and get to know them on a personal level. They also observe patients and keep close tabs on medical histories and current symptoms. LPNs typically work under the supervision of physicians and registered nurses (RNs), though there is still a great deal of autonomy.

Where can LPNs work?

Most people assume all LPNs work in nursing homes, which is not the case. In fact, only about 38 percent of LPNs work in this setting, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).2 Though there has been an uptick in the LPNs working outside of hospitals as patients seek their healthcare closer to home, LPNs can also find employment in physicians’ offices, home health care agencies, rehabilitation clinics, hospitals or ambulatory surgical centers.

How to become an LPN

There are several steps involved in becoming an LPN. First you’ll want to complete a nursing program to earn your diploma. LPN programs include both theoretical learning in the classroom and practical learning in nursing labs or clinicals. Clinical rotations allow you to shadow working nurses and try your hand at the duties you’ll perform every day as an LPN while you’re still a student nurse. Examples of Practical Nursing courses at Rasmussen College include:

  • Nutritional Principles in Nursing
  • Family Nursing
  • Psychosocial Nursing

After graduation, you’ll need to take the national licensure exam, the NCLEX-PN. Once you pass the NCLEX, you’ll officially be an LPN and you’ll finally get to put in to practice everything you’ve learned!

LPN career path

Once established as an LPN, there are many opportunities to further develop your career. Some may stay at the LPN level and pursue specialized care positions or team lead roles. Otherwise, LPNs can go on to pursue their Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). These degree programs prepare you for a career as an RN and provide you with the necessary tools and knowledge to sit for the NCLEX-RN.

What is professional nursing?

On the professional nursing track, you have the option to either earn an ADN or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to become a registered professional nurse. You’ll have to pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN) after graduation to become a licensed RN, regardless of which degree you earn.

Compared to practical nurses, RNs have more options when it comes to specializations and workplaces. You’ll find more RNs in hospitals than in long-term care facilities. They’re also more likely than LPNs to work in highly specialized departments like the NICU and emergency care.

What do RNs do?

RNs are responsible for assessing the medical history and symptoms of patients, planning individualized care, implementing their recovery plan based on diagnostic tests and administering treatments and medications.1 They also consult with physicians and other healthcare professionals, among several other duties that vary depending on the setting.

Educating patients and their families is another important role of being a RN. The RN must be confident in teaching the patient and their family how to care for the ill or injured patient while also assisting in rehabilitation and therapeutic care.

Where can RNs work?

Hospitals are the most common work environment for RNs, with 60 percent working in this setting, according to the BLS.2 RNs can specialize in various areas of the hospital, such as oncology, gynecology, surgical care or cardiology.

Another path includes critical care in an intensive care or emergency unit at a hospital, where nurses provided initial evaluations and care for patients with life-threatening conditions. Hospital nurses are more likely to work nights and weekends compared to office nurses due to the increased need for 24-hour patient care.

RNs also have the option to work in physicians’ offices, nursing care facilities or home health care services. There are also government RN positions available in correctional facilities, schools, clinics or even in the military.

How to become an RN

You can become a registered nurse by earning either an Associate’s Degree in Nursing or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and passing the NCLEX-RN Exam. Whichever you choose is dependent on your goals and your timeline. A bachelor’s degree will certainly take longer to complete than an associate’s degree though exact timing is dependent on the school you pick. BSN programs include courses that typically aren’t in an ADN program, with courses covering “big picture” topics like public health, management, leadership, nursing research, and physical and social sciences.

RN career path

Though both educational paths lead to the same job title, BSN nurses may see a benefit to their expanded education as they progress further into their careers. While it’s only one of many factors, a BSN can help nurses differentiate from their competition when seeking management or leadership roles.

RNs with their BSN also have the option to earn their Master of Science in Nursing and pursue jobs like nurse practitioner, nurse educator, chief nursing officer or nurse anesthetist depending on the MSN program.

RNs with their ADN can also further their education by earning their BSN when they’re ready. RN-to-BSN programs are specially catered to ADNs who want the opportunities associated with a Bachelor of Science degree.

Choose your nursing career path

There are plenty of options within the nursing field to get your foot in the door and start doing what you love. Now that you understand the differences in practical nursing versus professional nursing, what are you waiting for? Nurses are in demand and the job satisfaction of helping others and saving lives is incomparable.

If you think practical nursing is the perfect path for you, learn more about the daily duties of an LPN.

If professional nursing sounds like a better fit, get the inside scoop on life as an RN.

1Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed in each term.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed November, 2019] www.bls.gov/ooh/. 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.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2012. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020.

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen College. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.

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