What Is a Practical Nurse? Understanding the Important Work of LPNs
Have you considered a career in nursing? If so, you likely know there are a number of distinct paths one can take to enter into the field. With options ranging from licensed practical nurse (LPN) and certified nursing assistant (CNA) to registered nurse (RN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and certified nurse educator (CNE), it’s clear that you should do a bit of research before selecting the route that will best fit your personal career goals.
One thing is true regardless of the path you choose: There’s never been a better time to break into the field of nursing. While there are currently more than 2.7 million nurses in the U.S., we still had more than 315,000 fewer nurses than what was needed in 2016. And this shortage will continue to grow, with current data projecting a nursing deficit of 1.2 million nurses by 2030.
Many nursing professions—such as RN, DNP and CNE—require more than two years of formal, accredited education. Becoming an LPN or a CNA, however, can take far less time. If you’re looking to capitalize on the nursing shortage sooner rather than later, read on to learn more about the differences between LPNs and CNAs, the typical duties each will face in a given day and the current forecast for practical nurses in today’s job market. You may find the perfect path to the fulfilling healthcare career you’ve been seeking.
LPN vs. CNA: What’s the difference?
While the requirements to become an LPN or a CNA may take less time than some of the more advanced nursing titles, there are distinct differences between the two. Both provide basic care to patients, but CNAs do so under the supervision of either an LPN or an RN, and their scope of practice is more limited than that of LPNs. The most common duties performed by a CNA include answering call lights, assisting patients with bathing and dressing, serving meals to patients, recording vital signs with the responsibility of reporting changes to the nursing staff, transporting patients between rooms and making beds.
All practicing CNAs have completed a post-secondary training program to receive certification, which will generally take between eight and 16 weeks to complete. With a 2016 median annual salary of $26,590, many who hope to progress to a more advanced level of nursing in the future will pursue their CNA certification as a first step to help determine if nursing is the right path for them.
Conversely, LPNs are required to obtain a degree from an accredited Practical Nursing program. This will typically take between one and two years. In terms of Nursing degrees, this one is the quickest to complete, resulting in qualification to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN). This licensure will qualify you for an array of practical nursing jobs.
In 2016, LPNs earned a median annual salary of $44,090.* This hike in earnings is due to the extended duties LPNs are responsible for in comparison to CNAs. Read about these daily tasks below.
The daily duties of a practical nurse
LPNs are an integral part of a healthcare team who work under the supervision of an RN or other supervisor in providing basic care for sick and disabled patients in a number of different environments. This range of work environments includes hospitals, nursing homes, physician offices, rehabilitation centers, correctional facilities and even in providing in-home care.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the common daily duties of LPNs include the following:
- Monitoring patients’ health by checking vital signs such as blood pressure
- Administering basic patient care, such as changing bandages and inserting catheters
- Discussing the care they are providing directly with the patients and assisting with any concerns
- Reporting patients’ status updates to RNs and doctors
- Keeping detailed records of patients’ health
It’s also true that state-specific regulations determine the extent of tasks LPNs can perform and under what level of supervision they are able to do so. Some LPNs, for example, can directly administer medication and IVs while others cannot. LPNs who work in rural areas will likely assume additional responsibilities than those who work in a more saturated market.
What practical nurses can expect from the job market
The notable growth expected in the nursing profession is not just for some of the more advanced nursing professions. In fact, LPN employment is projected to grow 12 percent by 2026, nearly five percent faster than the average for all occupations nationwide.
But the high rate of growth isn’t the only promising part of becoming an LPN. There are a number of different specialized certifications LPNs can pursue to both increase job prospects and boost salary potential. In fact, there are more than 20 distinct certificate opportunities available to LPNs. Consider some of the most popular ones below:
- Transplant coordinator
- Long-term care
- Pediatric advanced life support
- Developmental disabilities
- Certified clinical research coordinator
- Case management
- Certified hemodialysis nurse
With so many options for specialized certification, you have the opportunity to not only become a more marketable nurse, but also truly find the niche you are passionate about and can excel within.
Are you destined to be an LPN?
If you are eager to break into the nursing industry and begin a fulfilling healthcare career with a wide range of possibilities for advancement, becoming a practical nurse could be the perfect path for you. Whether you find your life’s calling as an LPN or you use the experience gained as a stepping stone to a more advanced sector of nursing, the statistics have revealed that there’s no greater time than now to get started.
It’s understandable, however, to want to dig into all the details before taking the leap and applying to a program. That’s why we’ve mapped out all the steps you’ll need to take if you choose to pursue this path. Learn more by visiting our article, “How to Become an LPN: 5 Steps to Earning Your Scrubs.”
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed April 2, 2018] 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.