You have your eye on a health care career, and you’re starting to narrow down your options. Right now, you’re looking at the possibilities of becoming a lab technician or a licensed practical nurse. Although both are valuable members of the health care team, there are quite a few difference between them in terms of education, duties and salaries.
What They Do
Licensed practical nurses, who are called licensed vocational nurses in a few states, perform basic nursing tasks under the supervision of a registered nurse or physician. These LPNs or LVNs -- there’s no difference between them except for the title -- administer medications, change dressings, insert urinary catheters, give bed baths and perform other technical tasks. Laboratory technicians generally fall into one of two groups: phlebotomists, who draw blood for testing, and histologists, who cut and stain tissue samples for a pathologist to examine.
Both of these careers usually require education beyond high school, although phlebotomists may get by with a high school diploma and on-the-job training in some states. Lab technicians usually need an associate degree or some sort of formal postsecondary training in a community college or technical-vocational school. Branches of the U.S. military also offer training for medical technicians. Except for phlebotomists, training usually takes about one year. LPNs take a one-year course; these are usually offered by community colleges and technical vocational schools, although some universities also have LPN programs.
Although LPNs and medical technologists both work in hospitals, they do so in very different numbers. Fifty-two percent of lab techs work in hospitals, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 15 percent of LPNs work in hospitals -- they are more likely to work in nursing care facilities. Medical technologists might also work in medical laboratories, physicians’ offices or for the federal government. LPNS also work in physicians’ offices, as well as home health care services and community care facilities for the elderly. Either might work in a facility that runs around the clock, so they may need to work evenings or night shifts, weekends and holidays.
Licensing and Certification
LPNs must be licensed in all states. To become licensed, you must graduate from an accredited program and pass a national exam called the NCLEX-PN. LPNS are usually required to take continuing education courses to maintain an active license. Some states require lab technicians to be licensed and/or certified, and many employers prefer to hire licensed and certified technicians. Continuing education is usually required to maintain the license or certification. You’ll probably make slightly better wages as an LPN. The BLS says lab technicians earned an average annual salary of $38,960 in 2011, while LPNs earned $42,040.
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