What Do Dental Assistants Do?
A dental assistant’s job duties will vary by industry and state. You may be taking care of the patient prior to the dentist and hygienist taking over. Or, you may be put in charge of administrative tasks. Dental assistants play an important role in whichever type of office they are employed with. You help make the office run smoothly, and can increase the efficiency of the office and staff. Every state has different regulations on what they allow for dental assistants to do. However, dental assistant responsibilities typically include:
- Assisting during procedures
- Preparing the patient for treatment
- Taking patients’ medical histories
- Making sure the equipment is sterilized
- Reassuring nervous patients
- Discussing aftercare with patients
- Taking impressions of patients’ mouths for any needed oral appliances such as bite plates
- Office management activities such as manning the front desk, answering and making calls, and billing
In some states, dental assistants are allowed to to perform procedures such as fluoride application, sealants, and topical anesthetics.
How Do I Become A Dental Assistant?
When choosing to become a dental assistant, you are choosing to head toward a stable, enjoyable job. It doesn’t take long to get the necessary education, so you’ll quickly join the workforce.
There are two different routes available: Trade or vocational school takes approximately 9 months to 1 year to complete. You will graduate with a diploma or certificate. Community college in the other option. It takes two years to get an associate degree. The benefit of getting an associate degree instead of a diploma or certificate is that, if in the future you choose to go back to school and become a dental hygienist, you already have those credits to transfer toward your bachelor’s degree.
Most states require dental assistants to be certified, so there is a certification exam you’ll be required to sit for once you’ve completed your schooling. To be eligible to sit for the certification exam, you must have graduated or received your diploma from an accredited program. CODA, or the Commission on Dental Accreditation, has accredited nearly 300 programs nationwide since 2015. It should not be too difficult to find an accredited program.
|Program is 12 months and under
|Classes focus on dental assisting
|Includes core classes
|Community and career colleges
Is A Dental Assistant Career The Right Choice For Me?
“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
If you’re considering a career as a dental assistant, then you may be wondering if you have what it takes. Are you making the right choice? It’s normal to second guess yourself, especially in the wake of a big decision like picking a career. There are certain qualities you should possess if you are thinking about becoming a dental assistant. Even if these characteristics don’t sound like you, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider becoming a dental assistant. You aren’t going to be judged if you don’t embody every single bullet point listed. Even if you can relate to only one or two of the key qualities, don’t be discouraged!
Key qualities for successful dental assistants:
- You enjoy helping others.
- You are compassionate and empathetic.
- You are intelligent and you “get” things.
- You always try to do the right thing.
- You are patient and personable, and people like you.
- You are honest.
- You believe in being part of a team.
- You love to laugh.
- You can meet and surpass goals, both professionally and personally.
- You are highly organized.
- You pay attention to detail.
- You are positive and optimistic.
To become a certified dental assistant, you’ll need to sit for, and pass, an Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam which is given by the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB). Passing this proves to your potential employer that you are proficient and knowledgeable in the ways of dental assisting. However, depending on where you live, it may not a required step; you are able to work as a dental assistant without certifications in many states. Some states do require you to be licensed in order to work as a dental assistant.
To be eligible to sit for the CDA, you first must go through and pass an accredited dental assistant program. If the program you attended is not accredited, or you were trained on the job, you will be ineligible to take this exam until you completed two years of work as a dental assistant and are able to provide proof.
Each state has different regulations, and some offer other certificate and licenses in addition to the national one. Check with your state to find out their requirements.
Decisions To Make About A Program
When choosing a Dental Assistant program, first and foremost you should make sure the school is accredited with American Dental Association’s (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
If you have a list of schools you’re thinking about, then you may want to compare them by looking at:
- The program’s completion time, prerequisites, and curriculum. If you want to get it done quickly, and only focus on dental assistant curriculum, then a certificate route is for you. But if you want more options opened and are fine with spending two years in school, then perhaps consider getting an associate degree.
- Consider the school location. Is it convenient to your residence? Factor in inclement weather conditions and long drives. The closer to your home, the more likely you are to get to school every day.
- Is the school affordable? If not, what type of financial aid is available?
- Does the school offer internships or externships to help students gain real-world dental assistant experience?
- What is the graduation success rate of the school you’re thinking about attending?
- What is the student-to-teacher ratio? Smaller class sizes equal better academic success for many.
- Does the school prepare you well enough to pass the certification exam.
- Is there a program in place to help graduating students obtain jobs post-graduation?
During your time in dental assisting class, you’ll be exposed to subjects such as oral anatomy, radiography, and clinical dental assisting. You may also learn administrative skills, how to take x-rays, the process of recording medical histories, how to use all the tools of the dental trade, and chairside manners. Accredited programs will not only include coursework but also supervised practical, hands-on learning.
Every program has a variation on a common curriculum theme due to certain criteria that is expected from accredited schools. You can learn more about your potential program’s requirements by calling the school admissions office. Not all states require you to have a diploma to be a dental assistant (some areas allow on-the-job training). However, it’s becoming a more competitive field, so prospective employers are now leaning toward hiring those who went through an accredited dental assistant program.
Courses during your dental assisting training may include:
- Orientation to Dental Assisting: You’ll learn the history of dentistry and touch on all the basics of dental assisting.
- Oral Anatomy: You will become very familiar with the inner and outer workings of the head, neck, and mouth
- Chairside Etiquette: You learn how to treat patients and perform dental procedures. There may be more than one course in the curriculum.
- Dental Sciences: There will have a couple different sections you’ll take separately. You’ll study the microorganisms and diseases of the mouth, as well as treatment.
- Dental Materials: You’ll learn how to use all the tools of the trade. This course may be broken up into several different sections that you’ll take separately.
- Basics of Oral Radiology and Clinical Oral Radiology: These are two different courses that you will be taking. Basics is the class you will learn about the history and effects of radiation, how to protect yourself while taking x-rays, and how to use the different types of machines. Clinical is where you’ll apply that knowledge.
- Office Management: You’ll learn the skills necessary to run a dental office. Everything from front desk to administration work will be learned in this type of course.
- Computer Applications: You’ll be given instruction on using the business systems in dental offices. Scheduling, records, accounts receivable, and more will be taught.
There are quite a few factors that go into the cost of dental assistant schools including private school versus public, diploma versus certificate, in-state school versus out of state. Some schools include books and supplies. At others, those are additional and potentially significant costs. Generically speaking, dental assistant programs cost between $1,000-$30,000.
Diploma and certificate programs, because they don’t take as long as an associate degree program, will cost significantly less. Enrolling in a public school within your home state will greatly reduce the cost, as well. Out-of-state tuition is much higher than in-state resident pricing. Be sure to check with the financial aid department of the school you plan on attending, they can help you find scholarships, loans, and grants. Make sure to read this article about financial aid or check our complete financial aid guide to learn more about the process.
“What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Expanded Function Dental Assistant: This is the highest level of dental assistant positions. EFDAs are usually licensed by their state, allowing them to do fillings and sealants. You must be a certified dental assistant with two years of full time dental assistant employment to be eligible.
- Dental assistant instructor: You would be educating students in the same manner you received your instruction. You would be teaching courses such as radiology, how to use the dental tools, how to interact with patients, keeping dental records, and hands-on instruction. Dental assistant experience is required if you want to be a dental assistant Instructor.
- Dental office business team administrator: In this role, you schedule appointments and maintain the office financing and record keeping. You also take care of insurance on the patient level, as well as filing insurance claims. Business team administrators are usually the first faces patients see when they walk in the office. You need to know how to build relationships with patients to keep them coming back. While the business team administrator doesn’t necessarily need to be a dental assistant, dentists usually prefer the experience.
- Dental sales representative: You’ll need to be familiar with sales techniques. You should also know dental terminology and types of equipment that are used in a dental office setting and understand the needs of dental offices. Dental sales reps make sure the dental offices that are in their territory have their supplies and technology to keep them up to date. You’ll work very closely with the office staff and the dentist to determine what their needs are.
- Dental hygienist: If you are pursuing a career as a dental hygienist, becoming a dental assistant is a great start. It’s a hands-on educational experience unlike any other. Many who start as assistants move on to become hygienists; this is a natural career progression. Licensing and training for both positions are slightly different. A dental assistant receives experience working directly with patients. Part of the training for this career also includes various safety procedures and logistics of the home dental office.
- Dental consultant: When a dental practice is having issues thriving, they call in a dental consultant. The dental consultant will work alongside the dentist and office staff to make recommendations on how to get the practice back in working order. The dental consultant will also train the dentist and staff on the new best practices for the office. A good dental consultant needs to be familiar with dentist offices and their procedures; you need to know dental terminology; you should understand the dynamics of the office you are working with; and you should be an excellent communicator.
- Dentist: It is not all that uncommon for a dental assistant to continue on through an educational path to become a dentist. Dentists will diagnose, treat, and provide oral care to patients.
Dental assistants are critical to the functionality of dental practices. By becoming a dental assistant, you are opening up a broad career ladder for yourself. Also, as a dental assistant, you are an important part of a team. And it only takes a maximum of two years to get there.
Usually, dental assistant positions are full time. The average salary for dental assistants in 2022 was $44,710, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top 10 percent of dental assistants, however, earned closer to $59,200. Certified dental assistants typically earn more than those who have not obtained a certification. Most dental assistants work full time and may need to work some evenings and weekends.
Pay for dental assistants may look different in every state and within their respective industry. For example, dental assistants who work on a college campus earn slightly less than those employed with a dental office. And dental assistants who work in hospitals or with the government earn higher salaries than the national average for dental assisting. Geographic location will also have an influence over dental assistant salaries. Metropolitan areas pay higher salaries than non-Metropolitan areas.
Top paying states for dental assistant job
|District of Columbia
Top paying industries for dental assistant positions
|Home Health Care Services
|State Government, excluding schools and hospitals
|Management of Companies and Enterprises
|Specialty (except Psychiatric and Substance Abuse) Hospitals
|General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
Our aging population, combined with more access to insurance, is driving the job outlook for dental assistants up 8 percent between now and 2031. This growth rate is faster than the national average.
Through 2031, there should be close to 30,100 new jobs opening for dental assistants. This should make finding a position fairly easy for those who are qualified. Dentists will be looking to hire more employees, including dental assistants, as their offices become busier with people who, with better insurance, are taking care of their oral health.
Industries with the highest level of employment for dental assistants
|Office of dentists
|Outpatient care centers
|Offices of physicians
|Federal Executive Branch (OEWS Designation)
States with the highest level of employment for dental assistants
States with the highest level of employment for dental assistants
Find a dental assisting school near you.
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