Differences Between a Vocational Nurse and a Medical Assistant

If you’d like to work in healthcare, there are many career paths you can pursue. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, you’ll find that there are still several options for you to consider. With all of these opportunities, it can be difficult to know which one is the right match for your interests, strengths, personality type, and educational goals.

Many careers overlap when it comes to educational requirements and patient interaction. Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) and Medical Assistants (MAs) are two professions that are similar in some respects but incredibly different in others. Let’s explore these two distinct professions to help you make an informed decision.


About Vocational Nursing

Licensed Vocational Nurses, or LVNs, assist in the medical care of patients under the direction of doctors and Registered Nurses (RNs). They care for people who are sick, injured, convalescent or disabled. LVNs often have more contact with patients than any other member of the healthcare team. 

About Medical Assistants

If you’re not familiar with the role, Medical Assistants are multi-competent professionals who are involved in administrative and clinical tasks to help keep offices, clinics, and laboratories running smoothly. Overall, Medical Assistants receive valuable exposure and experience.

Educational Differences

Licensed Vocational Nurses must pass the NCLEX-PN licensing exam to become licensed in the state where they plan to practice. Medical Assistants, on the other hand, can complete formal training in even less time. For instance, the Medical Assistant program at Unitek College can be completed in as little as 9 months.

Educational requirements are a major difference between these two professions, and they should be considered before deciding which profession you’d like to enter.

Pathway to Vocational Nursing

To become an LVN, you will probably need to complete a Nursing Board-approved educational program—these typically last for one year—and obtain a license, just as an RN must do so. Each state in the U.S. administers the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCLEX-PN) examination.

You will need to pass this exam before you can get your license. Every few years, it needs to be renewed. Future employers will probably also ask you to provide documented proof of your license.

Pathways to Medical Assisting

While Vocational Nurses must be licensed to practice, Medical Assistants only need a high school diploma in most states. However, completing a Medical Assistant program would greatly improve the likelihood of employment. Many employers do not want to risk hiring an untrained applicant.

If you’re in a hurry to hit the workplace with a specialized set of skills, formal MA programs can typically be completed in under a year. Graduates can also pursue certification to open more doors.


Job Duties

Overall, there are major differences when it comes to the scope of practice between the two occupations. LVNs learn a greater number of clinical skills and will carry more responsibility. In California, LVNs are taught to carry out more involved procedures, such as placing an intravenous line (commonly known as an IV).

It’s worth noting that, in a few select states, a Medical Assistant might be allowed to place an IV. However, an LVN program typically goes into more depth and equips students with the knowledge to complete higher-level tasks.

Below, we have included some job responsibilities for Vocational Nurses and Medical Assistants.


While job duties might vary depending on the location and employer, they typically include the following:

  • Assess and monitor patients
  • Report adverse reactions to medication or treatment
  • Gather information from patients including their health history and how they are currently feeling

In some states, including California, LVNs are permitted to…

  • Administer prescribed medicines
  • Start intravenous fluids
  • Provide care to ventilator-dependent patients
  • Complete a plan of care for a specific patient in long-term care
  • Complete insurance forms, pre-authorizations, and referrals
  • Work with the interdisciplinary team to help determine the best course of care for a patient
  • Teach family members how to care for a relative or teach patients about good health habits
  • Supervise nursing assistants and aides

Medical Assistants

Administrative duties

  • Answer telephones
  • Schedule appointments & greet patients
  • Update and file patient charts
  • Order supplies
  • Arrange for hospital admission and laboratory services
  • Handle billing, collections, and bookkeeping

Clinical duties

***Clinical duties vary according to state law and may include the below…

  • Taking medical histories and recording vital signs
  • Preparing patients and assisting the physician during the examination
  • Telephone prescriptions to a pharmacy
  • Collect and prepare laboratory specimens
  • Sterilize medical instruments
  • Preparing patients for X-rays
  • Taking electrocardiograms
  • Removing sutures and dressing changes

Sunny Career Outlook

Both of these healthcare careers are on the rise, and they’re predicted to create thousands of new jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of LVNs is projected to grow 12 percent by 2026. The BLS also expects the employment of Medical Assistants to grow a whopping 29 percent!

So, why are these careers in demand? As the large baby-boomer population ages, the overall need for healthcare services will likely increase. LVNs and MAs will be needed in various medical settings to support physicians, assist RNs, and help care for patients. In other words, these careers both have a sunny outlook!

Top Industries

In 2018, the BLS compiled data to learn about the largest employers of LVNs and MAs.

Licensed Vocational Nurse

LVN Top Industries

Medical Assistant

MA Top Industries

Other Differences to Consider

How Much Do You Want to Work with Patients?

Before deciding which career is right for you, consider the scope you’d like to have in your interactions with patients. Medical Assistants do not perform invasive procedures on patients. For example, a Medical Assistant is not going to be tasked with inserting a catheter or starting an intravenous line, while these tasks are well within the scope of a Licensed Vocational Nurse.

For those who are interested in healthcare but do not want to perform such tasks, then a career in Medical Assisting might be the ideal choice. However, if it’s the opposite, then you might want to consider a nursing career.

How Important Is Compensation?

While most healthcare professionals are not motivated by wages, it is certainly an important consideration to make. Medical Assistants should be aware that the pay range for professionals in their roles is less than LVNs and other members of the healthcare team (learn more about this here and here). While this may convince some to favor nursing, you should take into consideration the fact that there is a greater demand for Medical Assistants in today’s market.

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to pursuing a career as a Medical Assistant and LVN. Before committing to Medical Assistant school or Vocational Nursing school, we urge you to consider the differences between these two very distinct professions.


Overview of Unitek College

Founded in 2002, Unitek College is an accredited, private institution that combines unique academic and technical specialties to provide excellent training programs in healthcare and nursing. With seven campuses in California, they offer educational programs in the cities of Fremont, San Jose, Hayward, Concord, South San Francisco, Sacramento, and Bakersfield.

All of these locations offer a Vocational Nursing program and a Medical Assistant program, both of which educate students through expert lectures, hands-on exercises, and lab work.

At Unitek College, students receive healthcare career training and clinical placement. Additionally, the career services team provides Unitek graduates with employment assistance. To speak with a school representative, pick a campus and look up their contact information here.

Change your future with Unitek!