How to Become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
Licensed practical nurse or licensed vocational nurse (LPN/LVN) programs allow aspiring nurses to quickly enter the field. LPN training takes the form of year-long certificate programs, making it shorter and less intense than registered nurse (RN) education. However, LPNs still provide valuable patient care across the whole spectrum of healthcare settings.
You can use your LPN certificate as the basis for an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing, with an eye to earning an RN. But it's important to understand the different nursing career paths before you decide on one in particular. Read on for details of LPN education and how it helps distinguish these nurses from other healthcare professionals.
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What Is an LPN?
LPNs care for patients in any medical setting where an RN can supervise them. One of their major responsibilities is helping patients with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as eating, bathing, and getting dressed. LPNs also help doctors and RNs with more advanced tasks, but their scope of practice varies by state.
What Does an LPN Do?
An LPN’s work centers on direct patient care. Some of the important hands-on duties that LPNs perform include:
Helping with ADLs
Measuring vital signs
Dressing wounds and changing dressings
Communicating among the multidisciplinary team
Providing simple patient instructions
Assisting other medical professionals with minor procedures
In some places, LPNs can help with more complex procedures, such as delivering babies, administering prescribed medications, and giving more comprehensive education to help with patients' at-home care. No matter where they practice, LPNs work under RN supervision to ensure that they adhere to patient care plans and inform RNs or physicians of any changes or complications.
LPN Versus LVN
The difference between an LPN and an LVN is semantics. Most U.S. states refer to this entry-level nursing position by the name "licensed practical nurse," but California and Texas call the same role by the name "licensed vocational nurse." Both positions have similar licensure requirements, such as receiving the appropriate certificate and passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN).
Most U.S. states refer to this entry-level nursing position by the name "licensed practical nurse," but California and Texas call the same role by the name "licensed vocational nurse."
Job responsibilities are also the same in most cases. LPN and LVN duties vary more by state regulations than by title, so nurses with the same title in different states may have slightly different scopes of practice but typically share their broad responsibilities. The professional hierarchy is also the same for LPNs and LVNs, who both report to an RN or advanced practice nurse.
LPN Versus RN
RNs have more education and training than LPNs. To earn an RN credential, you need at least an associate degree in nursing. Many RNs enter the field with a bachelor's, and more employers than ever are requiring this degree of their RN candidates.
RNs oversee LPNs in most facilities because employers trust their advanced qualifications. Many LPNs become RNs after earning a degree — see the Bridge Programs section for more information.
LPN Versus CNA
LPNs hold a more advanced credential than one position in the nursing hierarchy, that of certified nursing assistants (CNAs). These professionals earn their certification by completing a training course that lasts several weeks and then passing a competency exam.
CNAs typically handle basic care duties such as cleaning and preparing rooms, assisting with patient ADLs, and stocking medical supplies. This may free up LPNs to focus on other tasks such as helping doctors and nurses with procedures. LPNs may even hold supervisory power over CNAs in some settings, though this could also be the job of an RN.
Steps to Become a Licensed Practical Nurse
All states provide a similar path to earning an LPN designation. Your experience might differ in some particulars from LPNs elsewhere, but you'll face broadly similar preparation in terms of education, clinical training, and licensing exams.
What Are the Education Requirements for an LPN?
You need to earn a certificate before you can sit for an LPN exam. Community colleges and vocational or technical schools usually offer these programs, with only a high school diploma or GED as prerequisite. Faculty design LPN certificates to take one year of full-time study, though many schools offer part-time options to help nursing students balance their responsibilities.
During a certificate program, you'll take courses on health and illness, nutrition, human anatomy, and healthcare ethics. You may also need to complete introductory courses in biology, chemistry, and psychology.
All LPN students must complete a state-mandated clinical placement lasting a certain number of hours. During this time, you'll work at an approved healthcare setting in your community under the supervision of an RN.
All LPN students must complete a state-mandated clinical placement. During this time, you'll work at an approved healthcare setting in your community under the supervision of an RN.
Can You Complete an LPN Program Online?
A number of schools offer LPN programs with online coursework. Most online classes are asynchronous, without set meeting times. For these courses, you sign in to a learning management system at your convenience to post to discussion forums, watch recordings of lectures, and submit assignments. However, your clinical experience must take place in person, even if all your courses are online. This is so program supervisors can monitor your work in a medical facility.
What Skills Does an LPN Need?
As a patient care provider, you need a deep reserve of compassion and empathy to do this work. You'll often encounter people in situations that are unfamiliar and potentially frightening to them, so a calm presence and clear communication can do a lot of good.
The work also calls for physical stamina — LPNs are often required to help patients walk, turn over in bed, or otherwise support them.
NCLEX-PN Exam Requirements
After completing your nursing program, you must pass the national NCLEX-PN exam to obtain licensure in your state. The exam takes about five hours to complete and covers four groups of questions, which NCLEX calls Client Needs Categories:
The NCLEX-PN is computer-adaptive, which means it changes the questions you receive based on your perceived ability level. You'll typically receive your results about six weeks after taking the test.
State Licensure Requirements
Once you pass the exam, you can apply for a license from your state's nursing board. You'll pay a nonrefundable fee to apply for licensure. At this point, you'll submit to a criminal background check, which involves being fingerprinted and verifying your identity. Once this is complete and you've completed an online application, your state should make its decision on your license within a few weeks.
Your state may be party to the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), which guarantees reciprocal licenses for LPNs in good standing who move to another state in the compact. You'll most likely still need to pay an application fee. Most states have special licensure pathways for LPNs who move outside the NLC or move into the NLC from a non-compact state, which may expedite the licensure process without requiring the nurse to retake the NCLEX-PN.
Alternate Pathways to Becoming an LPN
Some states will offer licenses to LPNs who trained in the military rather than state-approved programs. You'll still need to complete all state requirements when it's time to renew your license — see the Continuing Education and Licensure Renewal Requirements section for details.
To learn more about nursing requirements and to see a list of accredited online nursing programs by state, explore our guide to becoming a nurse.
Earning an LPN certificate qualifies you for one specific role, so it's no surprise that most alumni immediately pursue LPN jobs. LPN duties may be broadly similar across positions, but there are some variations depending on the type of employer. We discuss those differences below, in addition to potential salaries, projected job growth, and career advancement.
Where Can an LPN Work?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the largest portion of LPNs work for nursing and residential care facilities, such as assisted-living retirement communities and nursing homes. As a nurse in this environment, you'll most often work with older adults who may be dealing with challenges related to cognition or mobility. You might work days, nights, or weekends because patients could need care at any hour.
Hospitals make up the second-largest category of LPN employers. Your duties here can range from assisting short-term patients with ADLs to helping doctors stitch up wounds. As with nursing care facilities, hospitals need LPNs to work all hours, and nurses with more seniority often get more say in making their schedules.
Opportunities for LPN Career Advancement
If you enjoy being an LPN, you can pursue postlicensure certifications to potentially improve your earning power and marketability in certain specialties. For example, the National Association for Practical Nurse Education and Service, Inc. (NAPNES) offers LPN certifications in pharmacology, long-term care, and IV therapy. In many cases, studying for these certifications can serve as continuing education credits.
You may also choose to seek an RN credential as the next step in your nursing career. To do so, you need to earn either an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing to qualify for an RN exam. LPN-to-RN bridge programs are common paths to reaching this goal.
Bridge programs account for your existing education and experience so you can begin RN training at an advanced level. By studying in this way, you may be able to earn an Associate Degree in Nursing in 12-18 months or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 24-36 months.
LPN Salary and Job Outlook
LPNs make median annual salaries of $48,070. This is a bit higher than the median pay rate for all U.S. jobs, which is $45,760. What's more, it's actually higher than the median yearly salary for all professionals who hold associate degrees.
The BLS expects the LPN field to grow 9% in the 2020-2030 period, which is about average for U.S. occupations. Regular turnover will lead to about 61,000 job openings each year during that time. It's worth noting that 89% of job posts for LPNs ask for 0-2 years of experience, according to data from the analytics company Burning Glass Technologies. This indicates that lack of job experience is typically no impediment to landing an LPN position.
Continuing Education and Licensure Renewal Requirements
No matter where you work, you'll need to regularly renew your LPN license. This may require completing a specified amount of continuing education credits, though not all states ask for these.
Continuing education can take the form of courses offered online or in a classroom, webinars, or seminars. The idea is to learn valuable new skills or update your knowledge of changing practices in the field. Legitimate education providers issue certificates of completion that you can show to your state's nursing board when it's time to renew your license.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an LPN
What Is the Difference Between an LPN and a Registered Nurse?
RNs have more formal nursing education, so they're trusted to perform more complex tasks than LPNs. For example, RNs can assess patient health and symptoms, draw blood, take fluid samples, and write plans for nursing care.
Is an LPN Program Difficult?
This depends on your skills and abilities. It helps to have an aptitude for science, because you'll need to pass courses in human physiology, biology, and chemistry. You might also have trouble with some of the more physically demanding tasks during your clinical rotation, such as lifting patients out of bed.
How Long Does It Take To Become an LPN?
It can take as little as one year to become an LPN. You might be able to finish your certificate in an academic year, or about nine months, if you attend school full time. You'll then need to take the NCLEX-PN and wait for your results.
What Is the Highest Paying LPN Job?
LPNs in government positions tend to earn the highest salaries in the field. Median annual pay for government LPNs is about $4,000 higher than the median rate for all LPNs combined. In practice, these roles are similar to jobs in other nursing care facilities or hospitals; it's just that a government agency runs the facility instead of a private company.
Resources for LPNs
We've compiled a few resources here that may interest you. These include professional organizations for LPNs that can help members with networking and continuing education, along with related degree programs if you're interested in pursuing further education.
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