Medical Assistant vs Licensed Nurse (LPN/LVN)

Similar to the licensure of registered nurses, licensed practical nurses are licensed by one of our 50 states after the nurse has graduated from a state approved practical nursing school and they have successfully passed the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) NCLEX-PN examination. Once licensed, the nurse will hold the title of LPN, which indicates that the nurse is currently licensed to practice nursing. Nursing graduates must pass this licensure examination before they can practice nursing. Medical assistants, on the other hand, are certified by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) if they choose to do so. Although certification is desirable for medical assistants, it is not mandatory for some employers.

Both licensed practical nurses and medical assistants are dependent practitioners who can only function and perform their roles under the supervision and guidance of a licensed healthcare provider such as a registered nurse or medical doctor, respectively, but their roles are quite different.

Medical assistants primarily work in a community healthcare setting like a doctor's office or clinic; licensed practical nurses work in a wider variety of healthcare settings in addition to doctors' offices and outpatient clinics. For example, licensed practical nurses can be employed in hospitals, medical centers, nursing homes, assisted living homes, in private homes, in schools and in correctional facilities.

In addition to more diverse settings, licensed practical nurses also have more diverse roles than medical assistants. Medical assistants and licensed practical nurses perform many patient care procedures and roles such as collecting laboratory specimens and changing dressings; they also care for all age groups of patients along the life span. They collect data and information about the patient's physical and emotional health, their current complaints and concerns and they also perform some procedures and treatments like taking an electrocardiogram and administering some medications within their scope of practice and according to their education and competency validation in these areas.

Both licensed practical nurses and medical assistants are dependent practitioners who can only function and perform their roles under the supervision and guidance of a licensed healthcare provider.

The primary differences between medical assistants and licensed practical nurses lie in the areas of clinical and clerical roles and responsibilities. Medical assistants play a more diverse and active role in terms of medical records, billing for insurance reimbursement, answering telephones and scheduling patient appointments, for example, and licensed practical nurses perform more direct patient care procedures than medical assistants. For example, licensed practical nurses can start intravenous lines and administer intravenous medications in some states; they can irrigate and dress surgical wounds, they can perform ostomy care, they administer and provide tube feedings and they are also heavily involved in monitoring the patient's ongoing changes in terms of their physical and mental status and their activities of daily living including ambulation, bathing, ordered exercises, dressing and grooming.

Differences in Education, Training and Salary Potential

Length of Education and Training

Training and education to become a licensed practical or licensed vocational school can be obtained in a community-based technical or vocational school, as well as in a college or university. The duration of the education and training to become an LPN/LVN can range from about 1 year to 2 years depending on the specific program and whether or not the student attends school full time or part time.

On the other hand, most states require little to no formal education for medical assistants. However, many prospective medical assistants choose to obtain a certification from a vocational school or university to increase hirability. Like LPN/LVN education, medical assistant programs can be completed in about 1 year for vocational school and 2 or more years in a university setting, depending on what courses the student takes.

Specialized Training

Other than college-required courses, LPN/LVN education in a community vocational or technical school demands coursework in anatomy, physiology, medical terms and terminology, the fundamentals of nursing, pediatric nursing, medical and surgical nursing, maternity nursing, pharmacology, nutrition, and psychiatric mental health nursing. Part of this training is conducted in the classroom, but other aspects of the learning experience take place in a nursing laboratory or clinical setting, such as a hospital or nursing home. This allows students to render nursing care under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified nursing faculty member.

Medical assistants will have some of the same core courses as a LPN/LVN throughout their training, including anatomy, physiology, and medical terms and terminology. However, the coursework then deviates into more assistance-based tasks like cardiopulmonary resuscitation, measuring vital signs, communication, laboratory testing, and other aspects of standard medical office procedures.

Educational Prerequisites

Other than a high school diploma or GED and a clean criminal background check, there are typically no prerequisites to enter a school for licensed practical/licensed vocational nurses, with the exception of a certain score on the Pre-Nursing Assessment Test (PNAT) if the school chooses to use it. The PNAT is a 3 hour multiple choice examination that tests the individual's reasoning, reading comprehension, grammar, mathematics skills and language abilities, including questions about medical terms and terminology that are used in healthcare and nursing practice.

Like LPN/LVNs, medical assistants have usually have to possess a high school diploma and clean background check before attending vocational schools. However, there is typically no MA equivalent of the PNAT. Much like nursing, many universities demand minimum SAT scores for admission. Once you are admitted into the university, they may require students to take specific general education courses before being accepted into the medical assisting program.

Salary Potential

The average annual national salary for a licensed practical nurse for the year 2012 was $41,540. This is over $10,000 higher than the average salary for medical assistants, which hovered around $29,370 in 2012.

Work Hours and Shifts

Licensed practical/licensed vocational nurses can work full time or part time. Nursing shifts can be 8 hours, 10 hours or 12 hours per shift. Nurses work seven days a week, on holidays and all shifts around the clock with the exception of some settings and some employers.

Much like nursing, a medical assistant's hours are highly dependent on their employer. Those working in a primary care setting, like a doctor's office, will likely avoid working overtime hours on evenings or weekends. However, medical assistants employed at a hospital can expect to work in 8 to 12 hour shifts any day of the week.

Employment Outlook

It is anticipated that the need for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) will increase by a dramatic 25 percent between 2012 and 2022. The majority of this predicted growth spurt should fulfill the need for more LPNs/LVNs particularly in residential long-term care and in home healthcare settings.

Medical assisting is in slightly higher demand, with job growth projected to be anywhere between 29 to 31 percent by 2022. Like nursing, the aging population stimulates medical assistance job growth. However, this career path is largely tied with the ebb and flow of the primary care industry. This area is steadily growing courtesy of new health legislation, which has increased the number of people with insurance coverage. The more doctor's offices and outpatient clinics that open, the more medical assistants will be required.

Differences in Programs

Costs

Nationally, the average tuition for licensed practical/vocational nursing programs is approximately $12,000 nationally but there is a wide range of costs among schools. For example, some schools may be as little as $3,000 to $4,000 or as much as $20,000 to $30,000.

On average, medical assistants spend around $4,000 on their education at a vocational school. However, the price can vary dramatically when attending a training program college or university.

Online vs on Campus Programs

Like entry level registered nursing programs, LPN/LVN programs may have some classroom study online. However, all of these programs have state-mandated clinical practice hours that can only be done with a student and the nursing faculty member present in real time and in a clinical setting, such as a long-term care facility.

Similarly, medical assisting programs may offer some online courses, but all require most or some on campus work. Vocational schools often require all on-campus work, where students can be fully supervised. However, a university or college may allow students to take general education courses online.

Competitiveness

LPN/LVN nursing programs are typically more competitive than non-college based medical assisting and nursing assistant programs and less competitive than registered nursing and physician assisting programs.

Though medical assistants may face less competition than those entering into LPN/LVN educational programs, certain parts of the country may attract more interest in the medical assistant field than other regions. Students will face the least amount of competition in smaller towns and rural areas. This is particularly true when it comes to vocational schools.

Other Requirements and Prerequisites

Aside from a high school diploma or GED, as well as the PNAT for some educational programs, pursuing educational training as a LPN/LVN has no other requirements or prerequisites.
However, this is not the case for prospective medical assistants. Many look into selecting a program accredited by Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), which will allow them to gain a valued certification from The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) later in the career.