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What is the Difference Between an RN and an LVN?

As you consider a nursing career, you may be wondering whether to become a Registered Nurse (RN) or a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN). While both play a vital role in patient care, there are some major differences between the two professions. Here’s some information that may help you make that important decision.

Responsibilities and Duties

RNs and LVNs (known as Licensed Practical Nurses, or LPNs, in many states) have similar duties in caring for patients. There are, however, differences related to critical thinking skills, care planning, nursing scope of practice, education, and overall responsibilities. RNs are independent in many areas, while LVNs must work under the supervision of an RN or physician.4

Licensed Vocational Nurses provide basic nursing care. Their duties vary depending on the work setting, but they typically do the following:

  • Monitor patients’ health – such as checking their blood pressure
  • Administer basic nursing care, including changing bandages and inserting catheters
  • Provide for the basic comfort of patients, such as helping them bathe or dress
  • Discuss health care with patients and listen to their concerns
  • Report patients’ status to registered nurses and doctors
  • Keep records on patients’ health

Experienced licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses oversee and direct other LVNs and unlicensed medical staff.2

Registered Nurses provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members. RNs typically do the following:

  • Record patients' medical histories and symptoms
  • Give patients medications and treatments
  • Set up plans for patients’ care or contribute to existing plans
  • Observe patients and record the observations
  • Consult with doctors and other healthcare professionals
  • Operate and monitor medical equipment
  • Help perform diagnostic tests and analyze results
  • Teach patients and their families how to manage their illnesses or injuries
  • Explain what to do at home after treatment3


Becoming an LVN requires completing an approved educational program. LVNs must also have a license.

LVNs must complete an accredited program, which takes about one year. Classroom learning in subjects such as nursing, biology, and pharmacology is combined with supervised clinical experience.

After getting a certificate in practical nursing, prospective LVNs take the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-PN. They must pass the exam to get a license and work as an LVN in all states.2

Registered Nurses usually take one of three education paths: a Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN), an Associate of Applied Science in Registered Nursing (ASN), or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Registered nurses must also be licensed.

In all nursing education programs, students take courses in nursing, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, psychology, and other social and behavioral sciences, as well as in liberal arts.

All programs also include supervised clinical experience in hospital departments such as pediatrics, psychiatry, maternity, and surgery.
Bachelor degree programs usually include more training in the physical and social sciences, communication, leadership, and critical thinking, which is becoming more important as nursing practice becomes more complex.3

LVN to RN Programs

LVNs can advance to an RN career with a bridge-nursing course. They can take an LVN to RN course at a local college and earn an Associate of Applied Science in Registered Nursing (ASN).

Alternatively, LVNs can take a bridge program at a four-year college to earn a Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN).

After graduation, ASN and BSN graduates can apply for licensing and registration with the state board of nursing and can take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for Registered Nurses.5

Where Do You Work?

Most LVNs work in nursing care facilities, general medical and surgical hospitals, physicians’ offices, home health care facilities, and community care facilities for the elderly.2  They can also work at outpatient clinics, dialysis centers, blood banks, psychiatric hospitals, and correctional facilities.1

More than half of all RNs were employed in general medical and surgical hospitals in 2012. Others worked in physicians’ offices, home health care services, and nursing care facilities. The remainder worked mainly in government agencies, administrative and support services, educational services, correctional facilities, schools, summer camps, and with the military.2

Nursing careers are experiencing faster than average job growth,2,3 and no matter what direction you take, you’ll find excellent opportunities for employment and job satisfaction.

1. State of California, Department of Consumer Affairs, Board of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians, on the Internet at  (visited June 03, 2013).
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012-2022, Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, 
on the Internet at (visited 5/22/15).
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012-2022, Registered Nurses, 
on the Internet at (visited 5/22/15).
4. Chron, Nursing Jobs, retrieved from, June 03, 2013.
5. Chron, LPN to RN Ladder, retrieved from, June 03, 2013.