Medical Assistant vs Licensed Practical Nurse

November 5, 2019


Have you been thinking about studying to be a medical assistant (MA) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN)? While there is some overlap in terms of responsibilities, these medical careers demand totally different requirements. 

With countless paths to choose from, learning more about prospective salaries and career opportunities will help you find the perfect career for you.

What Do Medical Assistants Do?

MAs are an integral part of any medical team, liaising between patients, nurses, and doctors. Their administrative and clinical duties ensure that their workplaces run smoothly.

Administrative duties can include reception work (e.g. answering phones, greeting patients, filling out medical records), organizing admissions, assisting with laboratory services, purchasing equipment, handling billing information, and scheduling appointments.

NTNU medisin og helse / Flickr / CC BY-NC 


An MA’s clinical duties may include recording patient medical histories, taking vital signs (e.g. temperature, pulse, blood pressure), collecting specimens for laboratory tests, guiding patients through treatment procedures, and preparing patients for examinations.

Sterilizing supplies and cooperating with physicians in the examination room are additionally important parts of any medical assistant’s job.

What Does an LPN Do? 

LPNs often work in clinics, nursing homes, and for private patients who need individual care. You may also see LPNs at businesses and schools providing basic care for employees and students alike.

What Can a Nurse Do That a Medical Assistant Can't?

Each state has its own specific nursing laws that define what licensed practical nurses, licensed vocational nurses, and practical nurses are allowed to do. That said, like MAs, LPNs take vital signs, collect specimens and administer medicine. They are trained, however, to provide more hands-on treatment. 

An LPN might change dressings, perform CPR, provide nasogastric and gastrostomy tube care, observe patients in critical condition, manage 12-lead EKGs, and communicate with patients and their families. LPNs are not trained to make assessments about a patient’s health nor are they legally allowed to admit or discharge patients. The final say belongs to either a physician or registered nurse (RN).

AirmanMagazine / Flickr / CC BY-NC 


The Difference Between LPNs and RNs 

Registered Nurses (RNs) are usually the direct supervisors of LPNs, nursing aides, home care aides, and even medical assistants. They are trained to administer blood transfusions and medication, develop and delegate patient care among staff members, perform physical and diagnostic tests with analysis, and pronounce death with an NP/MD order. 

How Long Does It Take to Become an RN?

Because of their lengthy, more thorough education, RNs can be found in every healthcare environment like clinics, health centers, and schools, as well as prisons, sports events, and summer camps.

Medical employers typically require RNs to hold a 4-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Depending on the employer, an associate degree might suffice. Current RNs with associate degrees can enroll in 2-3 year programs, and applicants who have a bachelor’s degree in other fields can apply their general education credits to a BSN program (that can take anywhere from 12-18 months to complete).

Pros and Cons of Becoming a Medical Assistant


 PAHO / Flickr / CC BY-ND 


One of the biggest benefits of becoming a medical assistant is how quickly and affordably that dream can be realized.

Most employers require a high school diploma, formal training, and a medical assistant certification. While some employers may hire medical assistants without certification or formal training, finding a job and higher-than-average pay will be more difficult.

Many community colleges and technical schools offer medical assistant training that takes less than a year. A certificate program is a great option for those with a tight schedule and small budget, but it’s important to remember that some certificate program classes won’t transfer to future college credits.

Medical Assistant Associate Degrees

Associate of Applied Science (AAS) and medical assistant associate degrees take around two years to complete. A major benefit of pursuing these degrees is being able to apply completed credits to future educational opportunities. That said, associate degree programs are more expensive and take longer to complete.

Regardless of whether you choose a medical assistant training program or an associate degree, MAs are able to join the workforce much faster than many other medical careers.

Where Do Medical Assistants Work?

 Monash University / Flickr / CC BY-NC


MAs aren’t licensed, so they usually work under a physician’s or healthcare facility’s license. This typically means that state-funded nursing homes and long-term care facilities can’t hire them, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t fantastic MA careers in the US (say, in pediatric wards or neurosurgery practices). Though some shifts might involve occasional nights and weekends, most MAs rely on steady, dependable hours.

What Is an Average Medical Assistant Salary?

In 2018, the median salary for MAs was $33,610 , but the top 10% of earners made around $47,000. While it’s not the highest-paying allied healthcare career, this field is excellent for workers looking for excellent entry-level job opportunities.

Upward Mobility

Just like any other industry, a medical assistant salary will improve with time and effort. Many MAs receive additional on-the-job training and pursue higher education, leading to a variety of future career opportunities in fields like sonography, nursing, and healthcare administration.

Pros and Cons of Becoming an LPN


 Amine Ghrabi / Flickr / CC BY-NC 

To be accepted into an LPN certification course, you’ll first need your high school diploma or GED. Depending on the course, you may also need nursing assistant certification and/or the successful completion of prerequisite courses like English, math, and science.

The bulk of LPN courses take one year, though accelerated programs aren’t unheard of. Classroom courses are taught in tandem with hands-on experience to fully prepare future LPNs for their careers. After completing their accredited courses, students need to pass the NCLEX to receive their LPN certification.

What Is the Average Licensed Practical Nurse Salary?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2018 median salary for LPNs was above $46,000 with the top 10% of earners raking in $62,000. With an increasing elderly population, this career path is set to grow exponentially over the next decade. What’s more, this career rewards ongoing education, and specialized skill sets and administrative experience will result in higher wages.

Upward Mobility for LPNs

LPNs can start their careers much faster than registered nurses, providing more financial freedom. If becoming a registered nurse is something that appeals to you in the future, you’ve already got a great start (assuming you’ve completed your BSN and specialty certification). 

Kickstart Your Allied Health Career Today!

Whichever career path you choose, you’ll find a rewarding job to be proud of. As a member of the allied health or medical sector, you’ll be in high demand for decades to come!

If you’re living in the New Jersey area and thinking about starting a medical assistant certification program, contact an AIMS Education representative to get the ball rolling!