Doctors and surgeons are the most visible members of the health care team, but basic patient care is usually provided by staff in unsung, entry-level positions. Patient care technicians and licensed practical or vocational nurses are two of those groups. You can qualify for either position in a year or less, so it's a quick way to get into health care. Either one is a worthy occupation in itself, or you can use it as a step toward a long-term nursing career.
Patient Care Technicians
Patient care technicians are unlicensed caregivers, like certified nurses' aides. The relationship between those two professions varies between states. In some, only CNAs can qualify as a care technician. In others, trained PCTs are considered to be CNAs. In either role, you're responsible for primary patient care activities such as taking vital signs, changing bandages or dressings and helping patients with their daily activities. While CNAs are generalists, PCTs are often trained to perform specialized clinical duties such as dialysis, phlebotomy or ECG testing. PCTs always work under the direct supervision of a nurse or doctor.
Licensed Practical Nurses
Licensed practical nurses or vocational nurses -- their title in Texas and California -- are licensed and regulated caregivers in their own right. They provide much of the same basic care as a PCT or CNA, but they're trained to a higher level. They administer injections to their patients, collect blood or urine samples, run routine tests and monitor their reactions to prescribed medications. In some states, they can start IV drips or administer medications. LPNs can supervise the work of CNAs or PCTs, and their own work is supervised by RNs or doctors.
Licensed practical nurses learn their profession through a one-year program at a community or technical college, a training program at a teaching hospital or a comparable military training program. After graduation, you'd have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses, or NCLEX-PN, and then be licensed by your state's board of nursing. PCT training programs can be as short as eight weeks or as long as a year, depending on the state's requirements. The National Healthcareer Association offers professional certification for PCTs, if you want to demonstrate a high level of competence and professionalism.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics groups patient care technicians together with CNAs and orderlies for reporting purposes. The BLS projects 20 percent employment growth for these support staff, higher than the 14 percent average for all occupations. For practical nurses, the BLS projects 22 percent employment growth. Many schools offer accelerated programs for PCTs and LPNs who want to upgrade their qualifications. PCTs can upgrade to become LPNs, and LPNs can go back to school and become registered nurses. Most programs provide some credit for your prior training, though the details vary between schools.
- PCI Health Training Center: Patient Care Technician
- St. Louis Community College: Patient Care Technician Training
- Mayo Clinic: Hemodialysis Patient Care Technician
- Explore Health Careers: Nurses Aide/Nursing Assistant
- National Healthcareer Association: The Certified Patient Care Technician (CPCT)
- Explore Health Careers: Vocational/Licensed Practical Nurse
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Nursing Aides, Orderlies, and Attendants
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.