a medical assistant standing in a hospital room

Medical Assistant vs. Licensed Practical Nurse

Choosing between a career as a medical assistant or a licensed practical nurse (LPN) is not always easy. The two positions might actually seem very similar, especially in a large hospital setting. If you are trying to choose between these two career paths, then it is important to know the similarities and the differences between medical assistants and licensed practical nurses.


Medical assistants and licensed practical nurses both perform a number of the same duties. These include monitoring vital signs, preparing patients for surgery, assisting patients receiving care, and helping doctors. Practical nurses tend to perform a larger amount of direct care, such as working with intravenous lines, inserting catheters, or administering medications. Medical assistants perform different tasks that practical nurses cannot, such as performing laboratory tests and diagnostic procedures like electrocardiograms. Different state regulations dictate what medical assistants and practical nurses can do on the job.

Education Requirements

Medical assistants do not always require any formal education if an employer is willing to provide training. Most assistants, however, do acquire either an associate degree in applied science or a formal medical assistant certification. Both can take between one and two years. Licensed practical nurses go through nursing school. Practical nurses acquire an actual medical license usually in one to two years. The medical license allows practical nurses to work independently in some states.

Hours and Working Conditions

Medical assistants and licensed practical nurses can both work in a hospital setting. Medical assistants are more commonly found in clinics and physician offices. Licensed practical nurses are usually found in long-term or elderly care facilities and hospitals. Practical nurses are also employed by home care services. Medical assistants usually work during the day, although weekend and night hours are very common. Licensed practical nurses almost always work nights and weekends.


A medical assistant earns a median salary of about $29,000. A licensed practical nurse earns a median salary of around $41,000. The salaries for individual jobs are heavily influenced by the experience of the candidate in question, education beyond what is required for the position, and the location of the employer.

Prospects for the Future

The advantage of working as either a medical assistant or a licensed practical nurse is that they are both in a stable industry. Demand for medical assistants is predicted to grow by 29% in the next 10 years. Demand for licensed practical nurses could grow by up to 25%. This demand is largely based on the expected expansion of the health care system to take care of a larger number of elderly individuals and a larger general population seeking care.

Choosing Between the Two

Choosing between the two careers is a very personal decision. If you enjoy working with patients and want to eventually become a registered nurse or doctor, then becoming a licensed practical nurse is a good first step. If you would rather work with physicians and perform diagnostic and administrative work, then becoming a medical assistant is a better option. Medical assistants often have hours that are more reasonable, although licensed practical nurses could earn more over time.

Last Updated: April 15, 2015