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What’s The Difference Between RPN vs. RN?


What’s the difference between an RPN and an RN? While they are often confused–because the differences between the two roles aren’t necessarily stark–RPN and RN are two different titles, requiring different levels of expertise and education. They even have different shift duties. 

Whether you’re currently a nurse or exploring potential education and employment opportunities in healthcare across Canada, know that both RPNs and RNs play a vital role in many healthcare settings, and they’re both in demand. Here’s a complete breakdown of the two roles to help you decide which is best.  

What is an RPN?

An RPN is a Registered Practical Nurse.

RPNs in Canada must complete a diploma or degree from an approved practical nursing program and pass a registration exam. RPN is the titles used in Ontario, however if you’re anywhere else in Canada the role is called LPN (licensed practical nurse). RPNs and LPNs are basically two different names for the same role.

The role of an RPN is to provide basic nursing care, under the supervision of an RN or MD.

This includes tasks like wound care, taking vitals, and administering injections. If you’ve ever visited an outpatient clinic or an Emergency Room, and you were in a predictable, stable (acute) condition, you likely were cared for by an RPN. In some cases, RPNs may also provide more complex care, such as starting IVs.

RPNs also provide direct patient care, but their focus is more on providing support to RNs. They may take on some additional tasks such as providing health assessments or assisting in complex/emergency situations but it’s not their main duties. 

What is an RN?

An RN is a Registered Nurse.

RNs in Canada must complete a diploma, as well as a degree, or post-diploma program from an approved nursing program and pass a registration exam. While their educational path may be perceived as similar to that of an RPN, RNs have a stronger foundational knowledge, and extensive education in their field; because in most cases, they hold a 4-year degree in addition to their nursing qualification.

The role of an RN is to provide more complex nursing care than an RPN.

This can include tasks like patient assessments, administering medication, and providing education and support to patients and their families. RNs often work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals, such as physicians, social workers, and physiotherapists.

In terms of duties, an RN is responsible for a lot of direct patient care, similar to that of an RN (taking vitals, administering medication, and providing wound care). However, they also play a large role in patient education and discharge planning. RNs are often seen working hard in Emergency medicine in ER departments, ICU and trauma units. Some RNs also take the opportunity to specialize in a field, for example, neonatal care.

What are the educational differences between an RPN and an RN?

The main difference between RPNs and RNs is the level of education and training required and the scope of practice.

As noted above, RPNs must complete a diploma or degree from an approved practical nursing program, while RNs must complete a diploma, as well as a degree, or post-diploma from an approved nursing program.

This means that RNs have more extensive training (which means more years spent in post-secondary) and can provide more complex care than RPNs.

Which role should I consider? RPN or RN? 

Both RPNs and RNs play a vital role in the healthcare system, providing essential care to patients.

If you’re looking to attend college, there are plenty of approved nursing programs across the country at various colleges. Completing a practical nursing program in good standing generally leads students toward becoming registered, and the ability to apply for a position as an RPN after graduation/registration.

Many college programs also offer ‘bridging’ opportunities that lead students to a University program; this allows students to complete their 2-year practical nursing diploma and 4-year Bachelor’s degree concurrently and in less time. This is also a good option for students who aren’t sure about their path, but decide that they’d like to pursue a career as an RN after beginning their diploma program.

RPN and RN: Salary Expectations

In terms of salaries, both RPNs and RNs are well-paid, with RNs typically earning slightly more, simply because they’re equipt to deal with more complex cases, due to their more extensive education.

According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, the median salary for an RN is $77,000, while the median salary for an RPN is $73,000

However, other sources report that RPNs earn, on the low end in some provinces, $52,000, and in other provinces as much as $81,715. RNs tend to have the same range but always earn slightly more than their RPN colleagues.

When trying to assess salary potential, it’s important to factor in:

  • Your academic credentials
  • Your title/role at your job
  • Your years of experience in the field
  • And additional training or qualifications you have
  • Your employer, city, and province

Canada is a large country, with many areas paying less (or significantly more) than other neighbouring provinces and cities. However, it’s important to note that RPNs and RNs tend to earn a salary that is average-to-above average compared to other jobs (requiring similar education) in the medical field.

Final Thoughts

So, what draws people to one role over the other?  It really depends on the person. Some people prefer the RN role because they enjoy the patient interaction and the ability to directly impact patient care and make qualified decisions; many RNs enjoy having their extensive training and academic experience.

Others may prefer the RPN role because they enjoy the variety of tasks and the opportunity to work with patients in a different capacity. They also may prefer only spending two years in school, instead of 4-6, and still having the ability to receive a comfortable salary.

There is currently a high demand for both RNs and RPNs in Canada mainly due to the aging population. As people live longer and require more health care services, there is a greater need for RNs and RPNs to provide care.

If you’re currently an RPN, or looking to complete a nursing program, know that both RPNs and RNs are valued roles in the Canadian Healthcare System, and in either role, you’ll have the ability to provide assistance and care to people in need.