Should I Go for Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Medical Assisting?

You want to work in healthcare, but may be confused whether to choose a career as a medical assistant or licensed practical nurse. In the past decade, positions for licensed practical nurses have changed dramatically. Where once LPNs were dominant in physician offices, the profession is mostly found in nursing homes and hospitals. The medical assisting profession has stepped into traditional LPN roles in physician offices and ambulatory care centers.

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Like nurses, LPNs have to take and pass an exam in order to get the license to practice their craft. Their training is like that received by RNs except for the fact that LPN programs take shorter times to complete, may involve only a certificate or diploma and no college degree at all. RNs, on the other hand, must have a minimum of an associates, although many today have at least a Bachelor of Science in nursing.

LPNs have had to struggle to establish and keep their place in the medical playing field. Because they are viewed by some people as merely a downplayed, easier to get version of an RN, some people want to get rid of the LPN profession. Until that happens, though (if at all), it must be said that LPNs serve a very useful role, especially in nursing homes, which hire them because they work for less than RNs.

Despite sharing similar duties, a pay difference remains between the two professions. This may discourage medical assisting students who realize they may perform more for less. However, some key differences exist between LPNs and medical assistants beyond pay.

So, how do you decide between the professions? Here are some tips to help you make an informed choice:

What Are Career Differences Between an LPN and Medical Assistant?

Understanding differences between an LPN and medical assistant is important to making a career choice.

Medical assistants do not earn a license!

A medical assistant may choose to become certified or registered upon completing an approved medical assisting program. Certification and registration are different than a license, and are not interchangeable. Practical nurses may sit for a licensing exam after graduation from nursing school. Earning a license allows the practical nurse to practice skills under her own license—though most states require that an LPN be supervised by a registered nurse when performing certain assessments or skills.

Medical assistants do not practice independently. They work under a physician’s medical license. Essentially, a licensed medical doctor must approve a medical assistant’s ability to practice, and then agree to allow the MA to work directly under his or her medical license.

Because medical assistants cannot earn a license, they are often not allowed to work in state-funded nursing homes or long-term care facilities. LPNs; however, may.

LPNs learn far more clinical skills

Skills performed by MAs and LPNs may overlap; however, there are differences in skills performed by both. Skill differences may vary due to state laws that govern how LPNs and MAs practice. However, LPNs learn some clinical skills during nursing school which are not taught in medical assisting programs.

An LPN may be trained to place an intravenous line (IV) and provide select medications via an IV. Antibiotics, electrolytes and fluid replacement are some medications an LPN may be able to give through an IV. While a select few states allow MAs to obtain intravenous line certification, it is not a skill routinely taught during MA school or allowed for practice.

LPNs also learn other skills that an MA may not have learned, or be allowed to do by state law. Inserting urinary catheters, including Foley catheters and giving certain medications by injection, like antibiotics or narcotics are some skills that may vary between both professions.

LPN programs have more depth

Licensed Practical Nurse programs are often grouped in a nursing program that offers both LPN and RN degrees. All students, regardless if they are seeking the LPN or RN designation, obtain the same first-year nursing curriculum. After one year, and successfully meeting education requirements, students may take the LPN nursing exam, or choose to continue on a second year to complete the registered nurse program.

The LPN program offers a wider look into the human lifespan and care through the ages than many medical assistant programs do. An LPN program may include learning in-depth patient assessment techniques, how to create care plans, pain management techniques including therapeutic touch therapy and ergo-dynamic techniques and how to care for the terminally ill and dying patient. Critical thinking skills are also a foundation skill taught in nursing school. These skills allow the LPN to function at a patient’s bedside in a hospital, hospice or long-term care facility setting.

Where to find work

Most LPN jobs exist in hospitals, nursing care facilities and home health care. These positions often consist of night, weekend and holiday shifts and may be full or part time. LPNs working in these settings often care for the elderly and infirm, or patients hospitalized due to illness or surgery. In some states, LPNs are allowed to assist in childbirth and infant care. LPNs may care for patients with long-term and end-of-life needs.

Medical assistants are mostly employed in physician offices and ambulatory care centers, like outpatient surgical centers and radiology clinics. These positions often consist of daytime shifts and may include some holiday and weekend shifts as well. Medical assistants provide general patient care for a variety of illness, surgical and non-invasive procedures and yearly health exams. Medical assistants generally care for patients with short-term care needs.

What are the Salary Differences?

Salaries for both LPNs and medical assistants depend on many things, including location, the type of medical facility in which you’re employed, the job description and experience. Some positions ask for either an LPN or medical assistant because the job description is the same for both professions. There may not be a pay difference between the professions in this case.

However, some jobs may demand an LPN because specific nursing duties are required and a pay difference will exist. Pay also widely depends on location, as some areas of the United States pay higher than others.

LPN salaries:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that in 2017, the median annual salary for an LPN was around $43,000. Top salaries were around $60,000 while the bottom ten percent of LPNs earned less than $30,000.

Medical assistant salaries:

The median earnings for medical assistants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, were $33,500 in 2017. The top 10% earned almost $40,000 and bottom 10% around $28,000.

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Article Written by Elizabeth Otto

Elizabeth Otto is a freelance writer specializing in medical and health articles. Otto has worked as a certified medical assistant in specialty practice since 1994 and is also a nationally registered emergency medical technician.

20 Responses to “Should I Go for Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Medical Assisting?”
  1. Danielle W. says:

    I am an LPN working in MN. During nursing school our training was not geared toward working in mostly long term care. We learned all the skills needed to work in long term care,hospitals or ambulatory care(clinics). I have worked at my clinic for 9 yrs. I work in the ER, Inpatient and the clinic. Aside from rooming patients i also do EKG’s, start and maintain IV’s, give meds and injections, do nurse visits, scheduling as well as assist the providers with exams and minor sugical procedures. If you are planning to spend 2 yrs in school, you may as well get your LPN. I love my job,my pay,my hours and my patients! Good luck!

    • Jeanie says:

      I have a question for you! I recently got my EMT-B and had clinical hours at the ER. I loved it and wanted to become a nurse. Will LPN be enough certificate for me to work at the ER?

      Thank you!

    • Scarlett says:

      Thanks that was very helpful! I was a CNA for 2 years, I have just completed the PSS course. I will be working
      as a PSS for a year— just want to know what should be my next step? I’m thinking about LPN program, but it’s
      difficult to find a course. Are online courses good??

  2. Tiffany says:

    Danielle is correct in terms.of schooling that you are looking to acquire. I am currently a Medical Assisting student and our program is an 11 month certificate program though certain prereqs were required before acceptance.

    In addition to the above description, MAs basically experience the best of both worlds in the healthcare setting. The duties.listed above are primarily clinical and lab, but the CMA and RMA exams are divided into General, Clinical, and Administrative sections. MAs also learn admin duties: how to manage an office, receptionist work, medical coding and billing, insurance claim filing, filing patient charts, restocking and ordering office supplies, the gruesome aspect that is often overlooked. MAs are literally.the right hand man of the physician in their medical offices.

    If you are looking to expand your career later in healthcare, I think this is a wonderful field to experience everything. I have a bachelor but plan to pursue my masters later for Physician Assistant. Need experience first though ;). Good luck!

  3. Kerry says:

    I am an LPN in MI with 22 years of experience. As a rule of thumb here LPN’s for the most part do not work in the hospital setting any longer, we were trained in college to treat a variety of patient types not just long term elderly care. Before I became an LPN I was a Medical Assistant working for several different specialist types of Drs. I was a medical assistant who did not need a degree to hold that position and in fact I ran a couple of offices by myself thru the years running the front and the back. As a nurse I worked in a hospital setting for about 15 years, also hospice care, home care and was the Director of Nursing at a Assisted Living Facility. Many LPN’s these days work in Dr. offices. If you want more hands on with the patients then LPN is the way to go.

  4. Cheryl Knutson LPN says:

    Ihave been a Lpn for 25 years in a medical clinic. My company is trying to change my title to a MA. Can they change a LPN to a CMA just because they want to? I am entitled to the degree and title that I HAVE EARNED. Please help. I live in Wi. I am licensed in Wi and pay for my license.

  5. Beth says:

    I can’t imagine why they would want to change your title other than possibly for insurance purposes? Perhaps there is less liability for the practice if they have MAs on staff rather than LPNS? Just a guess.
    Regardless, you are a Licensed Practical Nurse. You have earned that title, you pay for it by maintaining your licensure every year or 2 years, and you were HIRED as an LPN.
    Unless your duties have changed drastically and you’re being demoted, you shouldnt allow them to change your title.
    Good Luck

    • Dave says:

      When you work for a company, they can change your job title to anything they like. Whether it’s for insurance reasons or not, you have the right to leave anytime you want to. Just remember, you go to work to make money, not look at your name in lights. You know what you’ve accomplished, let them call it whatever they want as long as your duties stay the same and your direct deposit hits every two weeks!

  6. Tiffany collins says:

    Times are changing and I’m fixing to graduate with my medical assisting degree. I see really no difference in LPN and Medical Assisting. Except the pay. Which in my opinion Medical Assistants are however to go a step beyond. We are trained to run the front office and due insurance. We are required to learn ICD-10 coding and CPT coding. In my state the hospital is turning to demand any medical assistant be certified. And any that is not are offered flexibility to go to school. And doing away with LPN. We come with a broad spectrum of training front and back. They get more bang for buck . But salary should be higher that’s a debate that’s in full swing now

    • Taylor says:

      LPNs in my state do a lot more than MAs. The LPN is trained in school to think critically. In my state LPNs can: place NG tubes, indwelling catheters, place dobhoffs (feeding tubes), give injections, Phlebotomy, start and maintain IVs, hang piggybacks, medication administration, respiratory therapy, wound care, set up and assist chest tube placements, maintain chest tubes, train and supervise CNAs, care plans…lots of care plans, and much more. LPNs can be the Director of Nursing in a long term care and rehab facility. LPNs can do a 1 year bridge program to become an RN. LPNs can work in medical offices, long term care facilities, assisted living, rehabilitation facilities, surgery clinics, hospitals, and home health.

  7. Sue says:

    I am trying to figure out what to do — go to school for CMA or LPN? I have over 5 years of experience as a Clinical Medical Assistant that I was trained for when I worked for a major Seattle Medical Center after I completed working for 1 yr as a Medical Receptionist there. I received on the job MA training rooming and discharging patients. I was not required to draw blood or administer injections because we had a lab and injection room 4 floors down that handled those duties.

    I moved across country and worked in a state that did not recognize my 5 yrs of medical assisting experience and was relegated to working reception positions, which I dislike the duties and low pay. I have now been out of the medical field for more than 10 years and I miss it!

    I want to do direct patient care, so initially LPN seemed the way to go. However, I don’t think I want to work in Long Term Healthcare facilities; I know this sounds bad, but I think I’d find it depressing, and I want to work with patients of all ages and with a population of patients whose health isn’t continuously diminishing. I would like to work in a hospital, medical center, clinic or office with a group practice.

    The disadvantage of the CMA is lower rate of pay and the ability to do a Bridge to RN later. The disadvantage of the LPN is the program cost being much steeper than the CMA.

    I want to enroll in one or the other within the next couple months. Any advice or insight?

    • Jeremy says:


      I think becoming a medical assistant is the way to go. I think its pretty standard that clinics hire more MAs than LPNs these days- and there is such a variety of clinics. Some MA positions are highly administrative, where you mainly answer phones, process referrals and prior authorizations. Other MA positions (like mine) are very clinical- I spend most my shift drawing blood, obtaining vitals, and administering injections. And then there are some which are a perfect balance of admin and clinical. I have been a CNA for 10 years and a CMA for more than 3. After 3 yrs I make more than starting LPNs in Oregon. I think people want to be called a “nurse” and therefore assume LPN is a better job. But the reality is MA is growing faster and dominating the outpatient world. This is my opinion. Good luck!

      • Robin Croom says:

        I agree with you, I am currently a Medical Assistant student at the moment and I love it so far but I think everyone want to be called a nurse because it sounds good. MAs and LPNs practice the same scope the only difference I see Is that nurses are licensed and we are certified, nurses can do sterile procedures and we can’t, they work in a long term facility and we are in a Dr office. They give meds we do too, they complete an assessment we do too, there’s hardly an difference. MA schedule is better than an LPN my opinion.

        • Robin Croom says:

          Not to mention they can’t administer IVs and we can’t either.

          • Ran says:

            In my state as an Lpn we can almost do anything except starting blood transfusions, an initial assessment and a few other things. We work in hospitals right along with RNs. In my state, you don’t see a lot of MAs only in clinics other than that they are pretty non existent. I guess each state is different, I have friends who work in hospital, long term care, and so on. The pay as a Lpn in a clinic is a joke that’s why I think they chose MAs over LPNs.

  8. Kim says:

    Can CMA’s go to the RN program after a year experience.

  9. kristen says:

    LPN to BSN I am 48 and graduated w associates in medical assisting 28 years ago and I only make $7 more than when I started. I work full time and my salary is $44,000. Horrible for what I do each day. If anyone is thinking of medical assisting then you wont be making any money. I am in nursing school now. Most hospitals are now only hiring BSN

  10. Shanti Shrestha says:

    Hi I want to join LPN program but I donot have basic knowledge about medical so is it possible to take LPN or not . I need your suggestion . Hope for your positive react .

  11. Nurse Betty says:

    Kim, no, a CMA can not bridge to the RN program. CMA is not even a stepping stone to a nursing profession. However, a LPN can bridge to the RN program since the LPN program is the exact same as the first year of a RN program.

    To those saying there is no difference between a CMA and an LPN “bc they do similar jobs in the clinic setting”, you are very wrong and very mistaken. An LPN can do everything a CMA does plus more. The same can not be said about a CMA.

    In my state, an LPN can do essentially everything an RN does as long as the facility allows is and that LPN has been trained and is competent enough.

    It is a slap in the face to every individual who has completed a nursing program and then gone on to obtain their licensure to even say you operate at the same level or have the same/higher education as a nurse.

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