How to Become an LPN
A licensed practical nurse (LPN) is a vital member of a high performance healthcare team. Any time patients enter a healthcare facility, LPNs measure and record their blood pressure, weight, height, pulse, temperature and rate of respiration. Without this initial documentation of a patient's vital signs, healthcare providers would lack the context they need to make the most accurate diagnoses and recommendations possible.
The tasks that LPNs are authorized to perform vary considerably by both state and employer, and in some states, LPNs are known as LVNs (licensed vocational nurses). These professionals assess patients, monitor vital signs, and assist with personal care and procedures such as catheterization and wound care. Some states permit LPNs to give prescription medication, operate devices such as ventilators, initiate and maintain intravenous therapy and conduct basic laboratory tests. Doctors, registered nurses and advanced practice nurses supervise the direct care provided by LPNs, and rely on them to help deliver appropriate, timely and compassionate care.
Extended-care or long-term nursing facilities (such as skilled rehabilitation hospitals and nursing homes) are the most common employment settings for LPNs. They also work in general care hospitals, medical offices, community health centers, and in patients’ homes. Nursing services are often provided around the clock, so LPNs will have a variable work schedule that often includes nights, holidays and weekends.
Aspiring LPNs need a high school diploma or GED to apply for an LPN educational training program, typically a 12-month program found in technical and vocational schools and community colleges. These programs award diplomas or certificates rather than degrees. The most reputable programs will be accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC). This accreditation signifies that a program's curriculum properly prepares students to be LPNs, its faculty members are well qualified to teach, and most students pass the subsequent NCLEX-PN licensing exam. Accreditation also means that credits are likely to transfer if students want to pursue another degree program such as an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing.
LPN programs are typically structured in a hybrid format with classes taught both online and in traditional classrooms. Clinical rotations in several nursing practice specialties are included along with courses such as biology, nursing theory and pharmacology.
Much of an LPN’s hands-on training is carried out in his or her educational program’s clinical rotations. Because job duties and employer policies vary widely, most training is conducted at the workplace under the supervision of another LPN or RN. The training period usually lasts several weeks.
Licensing and/or Certification
LPNs are licensed by the state in which they practice. To obtain an LPN license, the state may require background checks and proof of education. Every state administers the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCLEX-PN) exam, which candidates have to pass to obtain their license. Licenses must be renewed periodically and usually require written proof of active nursing practice.
LPNs have several specialty options available to them. Many LPNs pursue certification in intravenous therapy through the National Federation of Licensed Practical Nurses. NFLPN also offers certification in specialties such as gerontology and foot care. The National Association Directors of Nursing Administration in Long Term Care offers a long-term care certification.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Successful LPNs must have physical strength, flexibility and endurance in order to meet the challenge of delivering patient care. Problem-solving skills are essential, as is the ability to communicate well—both verbally and in writing. Employers seek out LPNs who are responsible, dependable and who have the ability to multitask. Empathy, patience and good interpersonal skills are also important when dealing with patients and their families.
Opportunities for Advancement
A LPN desiring a higher salary and more responsibility typically makes a move from patient care to an administrative role, especially in long-term care facilities. When it comes to advancing their healthcare career, most LPNs opt to become registered nurses (RNs). In order to make this leap, more education is needed. So-called “bridge” programs are becoming popular to meet this need. An LPN’s pathway to becoming an RN could be through an associate’s degree in nursing (LPN to ADN/RN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (LPN to BSN/RN). Bridge programs sometimes permit the substitution of work experience for class credit.
The data in 2011 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that LPN wages ranged from $14.74/hour ($30,650/year) to $27.44/hour ($57,080/year), with a median salary of $19.79/hour ($41,150/year). The annual salary can vary though, from $29,680 to $56,010. LPN compensation is higher in more populated regions of the U.S. where there are many large healthcare facilities.
Most LPNs work with elderly people, and since the U.S. population is aging quickly, the demand for these nurses will grow. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, LPNs will see their job opportunities expand by about 22 percent (an above-average rate) through 2020. These jobs are expected to be available in all healthcare arenas including long-term care, assisted living, doctor’s offices and home healthcare.