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What is an RPN?

In Ontario, nursing is one profession with two categories: Registered Practical Nurse (RPN) and Registered Nurse (RN). RPNs are health care professionals. They combine nursing skill, knowledge and judgment and are experts of nursing care at the bedside. There are areas of overlap between the two categories, but there are differences as well. These differences are based on entry-level and ongoing nursing knowledge and competencies.

RPNs and RNs study from the same body of nursing knowledge. The foundational knowledge base of RNs and RPNs is different as a result of differences in basic nursing education. RNs study for a longer period of time, allowing for greater depth and breadth of foundational knowledge in the areas of clinical practice, decision-making, critical thinking, leadership, research utilization and resource management. RPNs study for a shorter period of time, resulting in a more focused body of foundational knowledge in the areas identified above. The autonomy of the RPN is influenced by the complexity of the client’s condition. RPNs have greater autonomy when caring for a client with less-complex conditions. As client complexity increases, there is a corresponding increase in the need for RPNs to consult with RNs.

In Ontario, RPNs are community college graduates. After graduation, they write a national certification examination. Once they successfully complete this exam, they are registered to practice as a nurse by the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO). All nurses must renew their CNO registration annually, maintaining up-to-date skills and knowledge of current practices, to preserve their professional standing. RPNs are regulated by the CNO through the Regulated Health Professions Act, 1993, and the Nursing Act, 1991 as amended. There are currently 36,677 RPNs registered in Ontario of which 31,492 are currently practicing.

Key Facts

  • Registered Practical Nurses are regulated health care professionals

  • 31,492 RPNs were employed in Ontario in 2011, comprising 1/4 of the total nursing workforce

  • The number of RPNs employed in nursing in Ontario increased by 3.3% from 2010 to 2011

  • RPNs study intensively for 2.5 years at accredited Colleges in both classroom and clinical settings

  • RPNs study from the same body of nursing knowledge as Registered Nurses (RNs), though RPNs study for a shorter period of time, resulting in a more focused body of foundational knowledge that enables them to practice autonomously on patients with less complex health care needs

  • RPNs work anywhere that health care is provided: in hospitals, homes for the aged, nursing homes, retirement homes, public health units, community nursing agencies, clinics, private practice, industry, schools, child care centres, and children's camps

  • Many RPNs complete post graduate education for advanced knowledge and skills used in specialty practice such as gerontology, surgery, obstetrics, mental health, and rehabilitation

  • In 2011, 39.3% of RPNs were employed in the hospital sector, 39.0% in the long-term care sector, and 13.9% in the community sector

  • RPNs comprise the largest group of nursing care providers in the long-term care sector and the fastest growing group in the community care sector

  • The rate of full-time employment for RPNs in Ontario was 61.0% in 2011