The nursing profession is one of the most diverse in the health-care industry. Direct patient care is the nurse's primary responsibility, but this care takes many forms. At the entry level, licensed practical nurses and inexperienced registered nurses spend much of their time performing basic care of the bedpans and bathing variety. At the higher end, advanced practice RNs provide doctor-like levels of primary care. This broad range of duties is reflected in nurses' salaries.
LPNs vs. RNs:
Licensed practical or vocational nurses represent the entry level of the profession. Their duties are confined to the basics of patient care, such as monitoring vital signs; helping patients bathe and addressing personal hygiene; assisting as needed at mealtime; and updating charts. They work under the supervision of doctors or registered nurses at all times. Registered nurses perform similar duties, but their scope of practice is much wider. RNs exercise broader responsibilities, often constructing patients' plans of care for LPNs to carry out. Like doctors, RNs can specialize in a specific area of practice, such as pediatrics, psychiatry or surgery.
In May 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an average income of $42,040 for licensed practical or vocational nurses. Broken down by percentile, the lowest-earning 25 percent of LPNs reported wages of up to $34,670 per year. Their median income was $41,150 per year, while the highest-earning 25 percent reported incomes of $47,920 or higher. In comparison, the BLS reports an average wage of $69,110 for registered nurses. Broken out by percentile, the lowest-earning 25 percent of RNs reported salaries of up to $53,770 per year. Their median income was $65,950 per year, and the top 25 percent reported earnings of $80,390 per year and higher.
Both LPNs and RNs can improve their advancement prospects and income by upgrading their skills. Many nursing schools offer accelerated degrees for LPNs, helping them to become registered nurses. Similar programs are available to registered nurses who entered the profession with an associate degree, providing an upgrade path to a bachelor's degree and beyond. For those who pursue advanced degrees and qualifications, the rewards can be significant. A 2011 survey by consulting firm Integrated Healthcare Strategies showed an average salary of $92,708 per year for nurse practitioners, for example. Certified registered nurse anesthetists earn doctor-like salaries, averaging $169,998 per year in a 2011 survey conducted by medical staffing firm Locum Tenens.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected significant growth for the health care sector between 2010 and 2020, and nurses are expected to share in this expansion. The bureau projects that demand for LPNs will increase by 22 percent during that interval, faster than the average for all occupations. Over the same decade, the need for registered nurses is expected to increase by 26 percent. The bureau notes that advanced practice nurses, including nurse midwives, anesthetists and nurse practitioners, will be especially sought after.