A licensed practical nurse assists registered nurses, physicians and administrators with basic patient care and record-keeping responsibilities. This position is similar to – and sometimes referred to as – a licensed vocational nurse.
In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook groups licensed practical nurse (LPN) and licensed vocational nurse (LVN) together in its entry for these positions, and the states of California and Texas legally refer to the job as LVN, rather than LPN. The BLS compares these positions to that of medical assistant, nursing assistant, occupational therapy aide, psychiatric technician, surgical technologist and other similar support roles in the healthcare industry.
These support positions, also known as allied health occupations, are vital components of patient care in hospitals, clinics and other health facilities. They also are considered entry-level positions for workers considering a long-term career in healthcare.
For example, the position of LPN can become a stepping stone job for someone who is interested in eventually taking on a leadership role in the nursing field. The job can provide valuable clinical experience for a healthcare professional who wishes to pursue a career as a registered nurse, a nurse practitioner, a nurse researcher or a nurse specialist.
An LPN also can spend time working in various specializations to determine if one of them might be worth pursuing full-time after progressing to registered nurse, then earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Master of Science in Nursing.
Job Duties of a Licensed Practical Nurse
The job duties of a licensed practical nurse will depend on where he or she works. According to the BLS, 38% of LPNs work in nursing and residential care facilities; 16% work in hospitals; 13% work in physician offices; 12% work in home healthcare services; and 7% work in government health facilities.
Most LPNs work full-time hours, although the BLS reports that about 20% of LPNs worked part-time in 2016. LPNs, like most healthcare professionals, are expected to work odd hours – nights, weekends and holidays. Shifts might also be worked for longer than eight hours.
No matter where or when a licensed practical nurse works, the duties will include vital support for other caregivers. An LPN often has the most face time with patients, which means they must be willing and able to concentrate on their bedside manner even more frequently than RNs or physicians.
A natural tendency toward empathy and compassion will serve an LPN well during a shift spent interacting with patients.
The work itself covers a variety of healthcare procedures and duties. On a given day, an LPN might be required to:
- Check a patient’s blood pressure or take and record measurements of other vital signs
- Change bandages, insert catheters, and other otherwise perform basic patient care
- Help patients eat, bathe, dress or use the restroom
- Listen to patient concerns and relay them to physicians or attending RNs
- Reassure a patient under duress
- Discuss treatment plans with a patient or a patient’s family members
- Collect samples for routine laboratory tests
Some LPNs might also administer medication and begin IV drips, although the regulations governing who can perform those functions vary from state to state. Some states allow LPNs and LVNs to ascend to leadership roles overseeing unlicensed medical staff, such as orderlies.
Licensed Practical Nurse Job Growth and Salary
According to the BLS, the median annual pay in the United States for licensed practical nurses was $44,090, or $21.20 per hour, as of May 2016. The BLS broke down the median wages by employer type, with government positions leading the way:
- Government – $45,620
- Nursing and residential care facilities – $45,300
- Home healthcare services – $44,510
- Hospitals – $42,660
- Physician offices – $39,990
The U.S. Department of Labor reported that as of 2016, approximately 724,500 LPNs and LVNs were employed in the United States. The BLS projects that LPN and LVN careers could grow by 12% during the period between 2016 and 2026, with 88,900 positions added during that decade.
The 12% growth figure is significantly better than the 7% overall employment growth during the same period. It also is in keeping with the anticipated growth of registered nurse positions (15%), although both LBN and RN growth fall short of the projected job growth for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners (31%).
Salary and job availability are subject to market conditions and geographical location, among other factors. All job seekers should conduct independent research.
How to Become a Licensed Practical Nurse
In order to become a licensed practical nurse or a licensed vocational nurse, a candidate must complete a certificate program that typically takes one year or less. Community colleges and technical schools offer qualifying programs, as do some hospitals.
The certificate program requires learning about biology, pharmacology and other aspects of nursing. A period of supervised clinical experience also is required.
All states require successful passage of the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nursing (NCLEX-PN), which is administered through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.
While not all LPNs or LVNs advance to supervisory roles, some might choose to become RNs and seek employment that requires an advanced degree, such as a nurse supervisor or a healthcare administrator. In that respect, becoming an LPN is a good way to take the first step toward attaining a position with significant influence in improving patient care and healthcare outcomes.