How to Become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)Edited by Nancy Lynn Swezey, BSN, RN, CNOR
Becoming a licensed practical nurse/licensed vocational nurse (LPN/LVN) is a good career path for aspiring nurses who want to get started quickly. LPN training programs allow students a relatively short path to completing coursework and becoming a licensed nurse. Training to be an LPN is significantly shorter and less intense than that of a registered professional nurse (RN). LPNs thus have a narrower scope of practice but still contribute in important ways to patient care within a number of work settings. Aspiring LPNs can benefit by understanding the specifics of the position’s responsibilities and the requirements for earning and maintaining licensure.
What Is an LPN?
LPNs provide patient care in a number of healthcare settings. They are usually overseen and supervised by registered nurses (RNs). One of their major responsibilities is assisting patients with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as eating, bathing, and getting dressed. LPNs also help doctors and RNs with dressing changes, some medication management, documentation, communication among the multidisciplinary team, and providing simple patient instructions. The scope of practice varies by state. For example, in certain states, patient education is considered appropriate when given by an LPN/LVN, and in other states it is not.
Within a relatively broad range of clinical settings, LPNs can play a significant role in patient care.
What Is the Difference Between an LPN and an LVN?
The difference between an LPN and an LVN is semantics. Most states throughout the U.S. refer to this entry-level nursing position as a licensed practical nurse. In California and Texas, however, the same position is referred to as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN). Both positions come with the same requirements, such as receiving the appropriate certificate and passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses, or NCLEX-PN exam.
Job responsibilities are also the same in most instances, although there may be some slight variations according to state regulations. The professional hierarchy is also the same for both LPNs and LVNs, who are both overseen by an RN or advanced practitioner.
What Does an LPN Do?
An LPN’s work centers around direct patient care. It is a hands-on career path that involves important duties such as recording patient histories, measuring and documenting vital signs, inserting catheters, and dressing wounds.
LPNs are expected to assist other medical professionals with minor procedures and to help with general hygiene care for patients. In some states, an LPN has a broader scope and can help deliver babies or administer prescribed medications. LPN’s scope of practice also involves working with RNs to ensure that patient care plans are accurately carried out. LPNs often monitor a patient’s progress and keep the RN or physician informed of any changes or complications.
While considered an entry-level career, LPNs have a large amount of responsibility and direct patient interaction, so they can have a considerable impact on a patient’s experience.
Where Can an LPN Work?
An LPN’s work settings are varied and the duties performed in each place also differ according to state legislation and institutional policy. Many LPNs work in nursing homes and help patients with care needs such as administering certain medications, bathing, and feeding residents, as needed.
Where else do LPNs work?
- Hospitals: LPNs in this environment typically help RNs and may oversee nursing assistants and other ancillary staff.
- Private Practices: LPNs working at a private physician’s office perform duties such as wound dressing and immunizations.
- Rehab Clinics: LPNs with a rehab specialization assist patients in the recovery process from trauma or surgery with therapeutic care services.
- Military Enlistment: LPNs can enlist in the military and provide care on bases or perform emergency care as medics.
No matter what type of setting an LPN works in, there are certain nursing skills that are advantageous. In addition to being able to carry out nursing tasks, techniques, and compassionate care, LPNs should be prepared physically for active work. Nurses of all backgrounds tend to spend a lot of time on their feet.
Strong listening skills are important for LPNs so that they can help track each patient’s progress, accurately record health conditions in the patient's chart, and report any concerns. Beyond learning effective listening skills, it's important that LPNs develop a good bedside manner to make patients and their families feel comfortable.
Career Outlook and Demand
The nursing profession is a growing industry, particularly as the baby boomer generation ages and medical advancements lead to longer life spans. With a growing population that needs nursing care, the job market for skilled healthcare professionals is expanding.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 12% growth for LPNs through 2026, exceeding an average 7% growth for other professions. This indicates a strong job outlook.
An LPN’s salary varies based on factors such as work setting and geographic area. According to the BLS, LPNs earned a median annual salary of $46,240 in 2018. For the most accurate LPN salaries, aspiring nurses should research the city in which they plan to practice as well as potential areas of focus.
LPN programs are typically offered at community colleges and vocational schools and last approximately one year. Aspiring LPNs should choose an accredited program to earn a practical nursing certificate. Typical coursework includes science classes such as pharmacology and biology, as well as clinical labs to gain hands-on experience as a nurse.
Upon successfully completing the LPN education requirements, graduates must pass the NCLEX-PN exam in order to practice.
Applying to Nursing School
For those who want to enroll in an LPN program, a high school diploma is typically the minimum educational prerequisite. Many LPN nursing programs also require an entrance exam. The most common one is the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam, which tests students in reading, math, science, and English. Schools vary in LPN prerequisites, and LPN hopefuls should consult the admissions department of the LPN program they are interested in to confirm admission requirements.
Full-time LPN students typically complete the program within one year. This includes both in-classroom courses and supervised clinical skill development. An entire LPN program typically requires 40 course hours to complete. The duration of an LPN program depends upon both the student’s availability to attend and the individual program’s options for flexible scheduling.
Continuing education requirements for an LPN vary by state. Some states throughout the U.S. require between 10 and 30 continuing education units (CEUs), although a few states do not require any at all.
Each state’s nursing board also outlines what kind of education constitutes a CEU valid for LPN credit. State-approved educators provide classes and online webinars, but LPNs may also be able to fulfill their state’s requirements by writing published industry articles, presenting at conferences or working additional hours. Upon receiving an LPN license, nurses should carefully review the educational and clinical requirements for maintaining an active license.
The first step an aspiring LPN must take is to complete an accredited educational program. This typically takes one year at a community college or vocational school. Classes include anatomy, physiology, patient care, nutrition, and mental health. Clinical labs are also required in addition to traditional classroom training.
After successfully completing educational requirements, LPN students must pass the national NCLEX-PN exam in order to obtain licensure. The exam itself takes about five hours to complete and covers four categories: safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity.
Once the exam is passed, a prospective LPN can register with their respective state and begin practicing in a professional role. Additional LPN certifications are available to develop specialization, including dialysis, immunizations, hospice care, pharmacology and long-term care. These can be included as part of continued education credits, and are valuable professional assets.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Does It Take to Become an LPN?
As discussed previously, LPN certification programs are typically completed over the course of one year. This assumes full-time enrollment and includes all of the requirements for finishing the program, including coursework and clinical training. Students can complete the LPN program at a community college or vocational school. For those attending school part-time, it may take longer to complete the program. Part-time programs can take as long as 24 months depending on the student’s course load each semester.
What Does LPN Stand For?
LPN stands for licensed practical nurse. In California and Texas, this designation is referred to as an LVN, or licensed vocational nurse. Either way, this license allows licensees to obtain entry-level jobs in the nursing sector. LPNs (and LVNs) generally report to RNs and physicians in a number of healthcare settings. Responsibilities also vary depending on the work environment, but they are typically very hands-on with patient care. LPNs also serve as a primary point of contact for interaction with patients, including recording their medical history.
What Is an LPN to RN?
An LPN to RN program allows licensed practical nurses to further their career by obtaining a registered nurse license. Because an LPN already has training as a nurse, LPN to RN programs can be accelerated to help nurses gain the additional certification at a faster pace. Students can choose an LPN to ADN program to earn an associate degree or an LPN to BSN program to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Many employers and some states now require RNs to have a BSN.
Are There Any Accredited Online LPN Programs? Can You Become an LPN Online?
Students cannot currently complete an LPN program entirely online because hands-on clinical work is required, although some coursework can be completed through online classes.
On the other hand, it is possible for students who wish to become a registered nurse to earn an Associate Segree in Nursing or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing online. Programs like the LPN to ADN or LPN to BSN can be completed online. LPNs who plan to advance their license to RN may be required to complete additional clinical practica. These must be completed in person to help students gain hands-on experience with new nursing responsibilities.
Can an LPN Administer an IV?
The exact responsibilities of any LPN or LVN vary by state. Some LPNs can administer IV medications. Some states have additional regulations restricting LPNs from starting or changing IVs for particularly complex medications or procedures. Individual institutions may have additional policies regarding LPN scope of practice. LPNS, however, are prepared to practice IV care as part of their foundational education.
Can an LPN Draw Blood?
In most states, LPNs do draw blood as part of their job responsibilities. Again, this largely depends on state and institutional setting. Those working in home care, for example, are less likely to draw blood. Other LPNs who work in an inpatient clinical setting may very well perform this function regularly. Some LPN programs allow for advanced specialization in intravenous therapy for aspiring nurses who wish to gain more experience in this area.