Medical Assistant vs. Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN): What’s the Difference?

Choosing between medical assistant vs. LPN jobs? Learn about training and career opportunities for these healthcare professions.

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by Heather Mullinix

Updated September 21, 2022

Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

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Medical Assistant vs. Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN): What’s the Difference?
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A healthcare career allows you to care for others and provides good wages and a growing job market. The BLS reported a median salary for healthcare occupations of $75,040 in May 2021, with a 16% projected job growth from 2020-30. This job growth rate is twice the average for all occupations.

Medical assistant and LPN jobs offer quick entry into the healthcare field, with programs that last less than a year. Medical assistants provide basic clinical care to patients and perform administrative duties. LPNs handle many of the same clinical duties but often perform more complex procedures.

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Medical assistant vs. LPN — which career is right for you? Both provide opportunities for career advancement. And both jobs anticipate a need for more workers. Read on to learn more about job duties, education and training, and career and salary outlook for these careers.

What's the Difference Between Medical Assistants and LPNs?

Medical assistant jobs typically involve clinical and clerical duties in a doctor's office or hospital. Clerical duties include scheduling appointments, maintaining medical records, or completing coding information for billing. Clinical tasks include taking a medical history, checking vital signs, drawing blood, and giving medication.

Most medical assistants work in physician offices, which can offer more standard work schedules than hospitals or nursing homes. However, like most healthcare professions, many medical assistants work nights, weekends, and holidays.

LPNs often provide patient care under the supervision of a registered nurse or physician. These tasks include caring for patients with ventilators or providing feedings through feeding tubes, or assisting with wound care. Often, LPNs care for patients with chronic or long-term care needs. State rules often regulate an LPN's duties.

About a third of LPNs work in nursing homes or residential care facilities. Unlike medical assistants, LPNs must graduate from a program approved by the state nursing board. After graduation, LPNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN) and apply for a state license before working.

Medical Assistant Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Short training programs or on-the-job training
  • Faster than average job growth
  • Professional certification can increase earnings

Cons

  • Median salary of $37,190 is lower than the median salary for all workers
  • Work schedule may include nights, weekends, and holidays
  • Limited career growth without further education

LPN Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Median salary of $48,070 is slightly higher than the median for all jobs
  • Short training programs allow a faster start to your career
  • Bridge programs make continued education more accessible

Cons

  • Laws often limit an LPN's responsibilities and duties
  • Limited career advancement if you don't become an RN
  • Work schedule may include nights, weekends, and holidays

What Degree Do I Need to Work as a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants can complete short training programs (less than a year) or pursue an associate medical assisting degree. Many schools incorporate internships with local healthcare providers in the curriculum. Courses often include medical terminology, electronic health records, and anatomy and physiology. After graduation, medical assistants can work in physician offices, hospitals, and other healthcare settings.

Few states require licensing for medical assistants unless they perform specific clinical duties. However, several organizations offer professional certification. This voluntary process requires professional experience, passing an industry exam, and completing continuing education. Professional organizations include the National Healthcareer Association, American Medical Technologists, and the American Association of Medical Assistants.

What Degree Do I Need to Work as an LPN?

A licensed practical nurse degree takes about a year to complete. Trade schools, community colleges, and employers may offer training programs that meet state educational requirements. Students learn medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and nursing laws. These programs also provide extensive clinical training in medical settings, helping build skills LPNs need.

An LPN must pass the NCLEX-PN exam and receive a state license before beginning work. LPNs work in nursing homes, hospitals, or home healthcare. LPNs do not have many opportunities to specialize or earn professional credentials. However, they can enroll in RN bridge programs to advance their careers.

Career and Salary Outlook: Medical Assistant vs. LPN

Demand for medical assistants and LPNs continues to grow. The BLS projects a 19% job growth for medical assistants from 2020-30, with about 104,400 job openings yearly. The agency projects slower job growth of 9% for LPNs during that same period, with about 60,700 job openings each year.

LPNs report a higher median salary than medical assistants ($48,070 vs. $37,190). Entry-level earnings tend to be lower than the median salary. Factors like your industry, location, and education also impact salary expectations.

LPNs report a salary range of less than $37,150 to more than $63,790. LPN jobs in personal care services reported the highest average salary of $64,840. LPN jobs in California offer the highest pay, with an average salary of $65,140.

Medical assistants reported salaries of less than $29,070 to more than $48,170. While physician offices employ most medical assistants, jobs with insurance agencies reported the highest average salary of $52,970. Washington state pays medical assistants the most, with an average salary of $47,320.

Medical Assistant vs. LPN Salary

Source: Payscale

Medical Assistant vs. LPN: Which Is Right For You?

Both medical assistant and LPN jobs can offer rewarding career tracks. Which one you should choose depends on your interests and long-term goals.

Individuals interested in providing direct patient care may prefer the LPN career path. LPNs can often advance their careers by becoming an RN. Many nursing schools offer nursing bridge programs that help accelerate this process. With continued education, an LPN can become a nurse practitioner.

While medical assistants interact with patients, much of their work occurs in an office. Medical assistants may return to school for business or healthcare management degrees to become healthcare administrators. Medical assistants with an associate degree can usually finish a bachelor's degree in two years, with many degree completion programs available.

Continuing education can also help you pursue a new career path that uses your healthcare experience. Be sure to explore your options if you're considering a career change.

Frequently Asked Questions About Medical Assistant vs. LPN

Which is better, medical assistant or LPN?

When choosing between careers as a medical assistant vs. LPN, think about the type of tasks you enjoy. Both jobs provide patient interaction. Medical assistant jobs often involve more clerical work, like scheduling appointments. LPN jobs focus on direct patient care.

LPNs report a higher median salary compared to medical assistants. But the BLS projects higher employment growth for medical assistants. Both careers require about a year of training. Most LPN programs also require some patient care experience, while medical assistant programs do not.

LPN jobs also require a state license. Medical assistants can pursue professional certification but are not required to hold a license.

What do you need to do as a medical assistant to become an LPN?

Medical assistants interested in patient care or moving into nursing can become LPNs. While healthcare experience may help you progress through courses quickly, you must still complete a one-year LPN degree and meet state licensing requirements.

State licensing requires graduating from an approved LPN program, passing the NCLEX-PN, and completing a licensing application. State boards of nursing often require a background check and fee payment.

How much do medical assistants make?

The BLS reports medical assistants earned a median salary of $37,190. Several things impact salary expectations, like experience, education, professional certification, industry, and location.

Most medical assistants work in physician offices and earn an average of $37,610. Outpatient care centers offer fewer medical assistant jobs, but they pay an average of $44,680. Medical assistants in Washington earn the highest average salary of $47,320, while medical assistants in Louisiana earn an average of $30,620.

How much do LPNs make?

LPNs reported a median salary of $48,070. Experience, location, and industry affect wages. Nursing care facilities employ the most LPNs, paying an average of $53,670. However, personal care services, which have fewer LPN jobs, pay an average of $64,840.

California reported the highest average pay for LPNs at $65,140. Most of the top-paying areas for LPNs are also in California. For example, Napa, California, pays LPNs an average of $76,890. West Virginia LPNs made an average of $41,310.

Does a certified medical assistant get paid as much as an LPN?

Certified medical assistants earn less than LPNS on average. According to a 2021 American Association of Medical Assistance report, certified medical assistants earned an average of $35,659 in 2021. The West Coast region offered the highest average salary, $43,441, followed by New England at $37,907. The organization also found more employers requiring a professional credential.

Becoming a certified medical assistant begins with education. Only individuals graduating from an accredited program may take the certification exam. Medical assistants must renew their certification every five years through continuing education or another exam.

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