If you’re thinking about pursuing a medical profession, you may be considering becoming a medical assistant (MA) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Both are rewarding careers where you will spend your days helping people while earning a decent salary.
A medical assistant usually works in a doctor's office or clinic and performs both administrative and clinical tasks. You can start with just a high school degree or GED, although additional training is often preferred.
A licensed practical nurse usually works in a hospital or long-term care facility. They administer medications and independently perform some basic procedures like inserting IVs or urinary catheters. It takes at least one year of special school to become an LPN.
This guide will go over everything you need to know about a career as a medical assistant and a licensed practical nurse to help you decide which is best for you, including salary, job location, typical hours, and more.
Medical Assistant vs. Licensed Practical Nurses Overview
Though both are medical professions, there are key differences, as well as similarities, between medical assistants and licensed practical nurses.
The biggest differences include scope of practice, training requirements, and working location. There are also some considerable differences in projected job growth and salary.
Here is a quick overview of each:
Medical Assistant Overview
Medical assistants typically work in doctors offices and clinics. Their work and necessary skills include both clinical tasks like taking vital signs and removing stitches, as well as administrative tasks like scheduling appointments.
Medical assisting job opportunities continue to increase. In fact, medical assisting is one of the fastest-growing career options in the nation.
Medical assistants' responsibilities include:
- Scheduling appointments
- Sending billing reminders
- Keeping the office organized
- Coordinating with insurance companies
- Taking vital signs
- Assisting with bedside procedures
- Simple wound dressings
- Drawing blood
- Collecting urine samples
- Preparing rooms for patients
Medical assistants work closely with physicians to take care of patients. They need to be compassionate and have good critical thinking skills, along with being able to work in a fast-paced, busy environment.
To become a medical assistant, you must be a high school graduate or have earned your GED. Getting your certification or degree is often optional but typically recommended, though it is possible to get a job as an MA with no experience or certification.
To get your medical assistant certification, you can take an online training course, attend a trade school, or get an associate degree in medical assisting. After you complete your course, you’ll take an exam to check your knowledge and understanding.
Licensed Practical Nurses Overview
A licensed practical nurse is more likely to work in a hospital or long-term care center than an MA. LPNs spend their days administering medications and performing basic assessments. They can perform some invasive procedures like inserting urinary catheters or doing IV insertions.
A licensed practical nurse will usually work three, 12-hour shifts a week. They may work nights, weekends, and holidays.
Many facilities are moving away from using LPNs and requiring all of their nurses to become RNs. While there are still job opportunities available, the job outlook for LPNs is slightly lower than the national average.
The scope of practice for an LPN is slightly more than that of a medical assistant, but they still work under the direction of a physician.
LPN responsibilities include:
- Administering medications
- Giving injections
- Drawing blood
- Placing urinary catheters
- Placing IV catheters
- Inserting nasogastric types
- Performing patient assessments
- Basic wound care
- Dressing changes
To become a licensed practical nurse, you must complete at least an associate degree program and pass a licensing exam called the NCLEX-PN. If you move from state to state, you will have to reapply for a license that is valid in that state.
Key Similarities Between Medical Assistants & Licensed Practical Nurses
Medical assistants and licensed practical nurses share many of the same responsibilities and job requirements.
Here are key similarities between the two professions:
- Caring for patients. Both jobs require you to work closely with patients in need of medical care and require you to be patient, kind, and compassionate.
- Working with physicians. In both jobs, you will work closely with a physician to create and carry out a plan of care for your patient. Both require great communication skills to keep your patient safe and well cared for.
- Fast-paced work environment. Both MAs and LPNs usually spend most of their days staying very busy. Whether in a doctor's office or a hospital, both careers require a strong work ethic.
- Growth opportunities. Both careers provide good growth opportunities if you are willing to put the work in and potentially attend more schooling. MAs can become instructors or return to school to advance their careers in the medical field. LPNs often continue on with school to become an RN.
- Can go on to become RNs. Both MAs and LPNs commonly go back to school to become registered nurses. You can learn about becoming a RN as an MA in our guide here.
- Need to understand medical terminology. Both LPNs and MAs need to understand basic medical terminology so they understand what coworkers are saying and can communicate well with patients.
Key Differences Between Medical Assistants & Licensed Practical Nurses
Although they are similar in many ways, MAs and LPNs do have some important differences, including:
- Work schedules. Medical assistants are far more likely to find a job within normal business hours than LPNs. Most LPNs work 12-hour shifts and work weekends and holidays. Medical assistants may work some evenings or holidays but are more likely to keep regular office hours.
- Scope of practice. LPNs have a slightly larger scope of practice than medical assistants. LPNs are able to independently give medication and injections, and perform some procedures without the supervision of a physician.
- Education requirements. Medical assisting does not require any prior training, and some clinics and offices will allow you to train on the job. Becoming an LPN requires an associate degree and passing a licensure exam.
- Salary. Pay for an LPN is slightly higher than that of an MA. LPNs make on average $10,000 more per year.
- Job outlook. The job outlook for MAs is more than double the job outlook for LPNs.
Medical Assistant & Licensed Practical Nurses Salary & Job Growth Comparison
When choosing a career, it is important to look at both job outlook and salary. While they are not the only things to consider, both are important.
The average medical assistant salary is $37,190 per year. This comes out to about $18 per hour on average. By comparison, LPNs earn about $48,070 per year or $23 per hour.
While LPNs win out on salary, MAs have a much better job growth projection. Many facilities prefer to hire RNs over LPNs, and they are not in as high of demand as they once were. The projected job growth for LPNs is about 6% through 2030, while it is 16% for MAs in the same time period.
Advancement opportunities are similar for both jobs. Leadership and education opportunities are available, but to advance further, both require a return to school.
Medical Assistant vs Licensed Practical Nurse Salary by State
Education & Certification Requirements for Medical Assistants & Licensed Practical Nurses
Becoming an MA and LPN each have different education and training requirements.
LPN Education Requirements
To become an LPN you will have to first apply for and be accepted into a nursing program. From there, you will need to spend at least one year attending a college or university to earn an associate degree.
After completing the LPN degree program, you will be required to take a licensing exam for your state. If you move to a different state, you’ll have to apply for a new license, but you will not have to retake your exam.
MA Education Requirements
You can become a medical assistant after completing high school or earning a GED. Since medical assistants are in such high demand, many offices and clinics will hire with no certification or experience.
However, it is recommended that you earn your certificate. To become a certified medical assistant, you will have to complete an accredited program and pass a certification exam. Programs range in length from four months to two years.
Comparing a Day in the Life for Medical Assistants & Licensed Practical Nurses
Medical assistants and licensed practical nurses both spend their days caring for patients, updating medical records, and making sure that physician orders are carried out.
Medical Assistant Work Day
A typical medical assistant day will usually start out with administrative tasks like appointment reminders and preparing the office for the first patients to arrive. They will spend the rest of their day shifting between answering phones, completing paperwork, and helping physicians care for patients.
Generally, a medical assistant’s day will begin around 7 am or 8 am and end around 5 pm or 6 pm. Some medical assistants who work in urgent care clinics may have to work some evenings and weekends, but this is uncommon.
Licensed Practical Nurse Work Day
An LPN will usually start their day around 7 am or 7 pm. They usually begin by receiving a “report“ on the patients they will care for that day. This might be anywhere from five to 20 patients. They will then get to work giving medication to their patients and performing assessments on each of them. They will call the doctor to report anything concerning or if they have any questions.
An LPN will spend the rest of the day helping patients with their activities of daily living like bathing and using the bathroom, while also passing medications and performing small minimally invasive procedures.
Other Healthcare Career Comparisons
Here are some other career comparisons we've written that may help you decide which is best for you:
- Medical Assistant vs. Medical Administrative Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Nurse
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Phlebotomist
- Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Medical Assistant vs. Registered Medical Assistant
- Alternatives to a Medical Assistant Career