Medical assistants and licensed practical nurses are both valuable members of the healthcare team. Both LPNs and MAs are sought to work in ambulatory care centers and physician’s offices because of their diversity of skills and valuable abilities. In some cases, the responsibilities of an MA or LPN may overlap. Though these professions may seem similar, there are distinct differences between the two.
License vs. Certification
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.
Differences in 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.
Ultimately, the skills both an MA and LPN are allowed to practice comes down to what is allowed by state law, training and education, and the amount of responsibility a supervising physician is comfortable extending to his or her practical nurse or medical assistant.
Skills that both LPNs and MAs are trained to do include:
- Taking vital signs like blood pressure, pulse, respiration count, pulse oximetry, height and weight and temperature
- Perform basic patient assessments for chief complaint, and review past medical history
- Perform basic patient care procedures, like hearing and vision screening and immunization and administration.
- Assisting a physician with procedures, like Pap testing or minor surgery.
There are some skills that a medical assistant learns to perform, that an LPN may not:
- EKG testing
- Venipuncture for drawing blood
- Performing basic laboratory tests like complete blood count, strep testing and urinalysis
- Basic radiology techniques for simple X-rays
Differences in Education
Professional education for both medical assistants and practical nurses may be similar in length, depending on state laws and the type of degree sought. Medical assistants can often choose between a certificate program that is about one-year in length, or an associate of applied science (AAS) degree that takes about two years to complete.
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.
Both professions must take approved courses in pharmacology, anatomy and physiology and human disease and epidemiology. However, LPN programs may cover these topics more in depth to prepare practical nurses for patient assessment and treatment in a hospital setting.
Differences in Pay
Medical assistants and licensed practical nurses both frequently work in ambulatory care, or a clinic setting. Despite skills and responsibilities that may overlap and similarities in responsibilities, LPNs generally earn more than MAs do.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that practical nurses working in physician’s offices earn about $35,000 per year. Medical assistants working in a similar capacity earn about $25,000 per year. Earnings will vary based on where you live, your experience and education earned beyond your LPN or MA degree.