Whether you’re a patient trying to navigate the medical field or a student interested in a career in health care, understanding the types of nursing degrees will provide you with the information to make smart, informed choices. These guidelines offer that information, and demonstrate the key differences between the two general paths to nursing.

Whether you're a patient trying to navigate the medical field or a student interested in a career in health care, understanding the types of nursing degrees will provide you with the information to make smart, informed choices. These guidelines offer that information, and demonstrate the key differences between the two general paths to nursing.

When visiting a physician's office or hospital, patients almost always interact with a nurse. They are briefed and prepped, measured and poked, supported and escorted out the door. What they may not realize, however, is that not every nurse is the same. In fact, significant differences exist between licensed practical nurses, or LPNs, and registered nurses, or RNs. These include level of education and knowledge, responsibilities, and professional advancement. With a better understanding of the individual roles of health care personnel, patients can gain greater perspective on their experience in the medical world.

Course of Study

LPNs and RNs both base their course of study on nursing arts and sciences, typically with a background in other areas of science or the humanities. LPN programs generally take one year, whereas future RNs spend between two and four years completing their degrees. This allows RNs to gain a broader and deeper understanding of necessary topics and a more specialized body of knowledge, including physiology, pharmacology, clinical practice, delivery systems, research utilization, resource management and team functioning. This extra time also increases the cost of an RN education. For example, one college offers an LPN program at an average cost of $3,650 over one to one and a half years, while its RN program averages around $7,980 over two to three years. Additionally, RNs are expected to continuously supplement their nursing education. While both LPNs and RNs must maintain mental and physical competence to continue working, RNs are increasingly encouraged to pursue bachelor's degrees and actively acquire new learning and skills.

Professional Expectations

The responsibilities of an LPN and an RN vary as well. In general, LPNs function in a “dependent” role that requires supervision or assistance from an RN or physician. RNs, on the other hand, may take action independently if they see fit. RNs also address a wider spectrum of issues than LPNs. The primary focus for an LPN is the client; she provides direct patient care, including determining status, devising a plan and evaluating outcomes. An RN performs these duties as well, often in more complex or unpredictable cases than those handled by an LPN due to her greater breadth and depth of knowledge. Her scope also encompasses families, culture, communities and populations, and psychological aspects such as coping mechanisms. In addition, RNs are responsible for creating and revising nursing care plans and medical information records. While LPNs often undertake these tasks as well and are equally legally accountable for documentation, RNs' greater mastery of the relevant information may effect more detailed results.