Medical Assistant vs. LPN
Reviewed by Brandy Gleason
Medical offices need a variety of trained personnel to serve their patients. These positions include both medical assistants and licensed practical nurses (LPNs). Both roles offer exciting career opportunities, but their duties and their job progression differ. Medical assistant vs. LPN — which one is the right career for you?
Medical assistants provide some patient care, such as taking patient histories or checking vital signs. They may be the first person a patient sees when they enter the office. Medical assistants also work behind the scenes, taking care of administrative paperwork and managing electronic health records.
LPNs provide basic medical care under the supervision of a registered nurse or physician. They can take on more complex clinical tasks, such as changing dressings and inserting catheters, helping patients with bathing and personal care, and reinforcing patient care plans. Specific duties vary depending on state rules and regulations.
Read on to learn about medical assistant vs. LPN responsibilities, training, salary outlook, and career differences, and explore which path best suits your career goals.
How Are Medical Assistants vs. LPNs Different?
State licensing requirements are one of the most significant differences between medical assistants vs. LPNs. This is due to LPN’s focus on direct patient care. No state requires a medical assistant to hold a state license. Instead, states provide rules for certified medical assistants, a voluntary professional credential offered by accredited organizations. The National Healthcareer Association's 2020 Industry Outlook found 89% of employers require or encourage medical assistants to pursue a professional certification.
All states regulate the education and licensing of LPNs. State boards of nursing govern nurse licensing, review complaints, and discipline nurses who do not meet legal or ethical standards. The LPN licensing process typically includes graduating from an approved training program and passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN) exam. States also conduct background checks on LPN candidates. LPNs can pursue additional professional credentials through accredited organizations.
Medical assistant and LPN training programs both require about a year to complete. Students can choose from several options, including a diploma or a two-year associate degree in medical assisting or nursing. Both associate programs cover topics such as anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, and medical law.
Medical assisting programs emphasize electronic medical records, medical office administration, and the use of industry-standard software. These programs often include a practicum before graduation, allowing students to practice their new skills in a real-world setting.
LPN programs place a heavy emphasis on clinical education. After classroom training in nursing procedures and practices, most LPN programs require clinical rotations in various healthcare settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and physician offices. Following graduation, most LPNs work in acute or long-term care settings.
How Does the Salary Differ For LPNs vs. Medical Assistants?
Regarding LPN vs. medical assistant salary, LPNs typically earn more. According to the BLS, medical assistants earned a median salary of $35,850 in 2020, compared to the LPN median salary of $48,820.
Most medical assistants (57%) worked in physician offices, which paid a median salary of $35,870 in 2020. Outpatient centers offered the highest pay for medical assistants that year at $38,860. The lowest-earning medical assistants were paid less than $26,930, according to the BLS. Employers have said they recognize professional certification with higher wages.
The salary for LPNs ranged from less than $35,570 to more than $65,520. About 38% of LPNs worked in nursing or residential care facilities, which paid a median salary of $50,100 in 2020.
How Does the Career Outlook Differ for Medical Assistants vs. LPNs?
Career growth for medical assistants outpaces LPNs, according to the BLS. The BLS projects 19% job growth for medical assistants and 9% job growth for LPNs from 2019-2029. Many employers have said medical assistants continue to take on more duties in the workplace, including appointment scheduling and patient care.
Medical assistants could move into management positions later in their careers. Medical and health service managers help oversee the business side of a medical practice, and the positions typically require at least a bachelor's degree. The BLS projects a 32% growth in employment of medical and health service managers. These professionals earned a median salary of $104,280 in 2020.
While the BLS projects lower job growth for LPNs vs. medical assistants, training and work experience as an LPN can prepare you to advance your nursing career. Bridge education programs help LPNs advance to a registered nurse (RN) license or earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).
The BLS projects a 7% growth in RN employment from 2019-2029. While that may sound like less growth than for medical assistants or LPNs, it represents an increase of about 220,000 jobs overall. Additionally, RNs earned a median salary of $75,330 in 2020.
Frequently Asked Questions About Medical Assistants and LPNs
Both medical assistants and LPNs enjoy rewarding career paths within the growing healthcare industry. The BLS projects more growth in employment for medical assistants, but LPNs earn more per year. An associate degree in medical assisting could help you move into medical and health service management positions. If you prefer clinical work with patients, becoming an LPN enables you to gain clinical experience to progress to RN or BSN positions.
While your work as a medical assistant equips you with an understanding of medical office procedures, you still need to return to school if you wish to become an LPN. All states regulate nursing programs with specific curriculum and clinical requirements. These programs take about a year to complete. After graduating from LPN school, you must apply for a nursing license and pass the NCLEX-PN exam.
The median salary for LPNs remains higher than the median salary for medical assistants. According to the BLS, LPNs earned a median salary of $48,820 in 2020 compared to a median annual salary of $35,850 for medical assistants. Salaries vary by experience, education, location, and industry.
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As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly twenty years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason teaches within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches students. Brandy brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and leader, having held roles at the managerial and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout. Brandy is an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments that contribute to the wellbeing of students.
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