What does a Dental Assistant do?

Median Pay $37,630
Growth Rate 19%
Citation Retrieved from BLS.gov

A dental assistant prepares a patient for surgeries, hands tools and equipment to the dentist, operates and monitors equipment, informs patients of diagnoses and treatments, ensures patients are well attended to and cared for, and performs administrative responsibilities.

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How to Become a Dental Assistant

dental assistant working

There are two ways to become a dental assistant, through formal education or on-the-job experience. Today, most dentists prefer to hire a dental assistant who is trained and nationally certified. Some states (but not all) also require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited dental assistant program and pass a state exam. According to the Dental Assisting National Board’s (DANB) website over 39 states require or recognize these certifications. To search for your state’s requirement go to DANB’s website.

Many colleges (especially community colleges), offer short certification programs that span four to six months, or an associate’s degree in dental assisting that may include general education courses. Before enrolling at a college, make sure the American Dental Association accredits the college. In 2016, according to the Commission on Dental Accreditation’s website, there were 265 schools accredited dental assistant programs in the United States. All of these programs should include supervised hands on practical experience and bookwork.

Research and ensure that the program you are applying to is accredited before starting. Some schools list their credentials in addition to the previous years students completion and certification pass rate on the program’s website. If this information is not listed, an admissions advisor can disclose this information as well. High completion and pass rates are a good sign that you have selected a high quality school and are on the road to become a Dental Assistant.

Now, if you live in a state that does not require you to get certified or earn formal training, speak to a dental assistant or dentist to get an idea of what kind of knowledge that they would like you to have (if any) prior to applying for a position. Most dental offices that hire dental assistants with no formal education or experience will train on the job. You will gain knowledge and skills in dental terminology, instruments, patient communication, and additional tasks that are required in a dental office.

To take the exam and become nationally recognized by the DANB you must graduate from an accredited school or complete 2 years of full time work as a Dental Assistant. The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam is governed and administered by DANB. The exam consists of 3 sub-tests: General chair side, Radiation health and safety, and Infection control. The test is 4 hours long and consists of 320 questions. In 2016, the exam scale was 100-900 and examiners had to score a minimum of 400 to pass. In addition, there are also advanced or specialized exams that one can take to further their skills set.

Dental Assistants are eligible to sit for:

  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)

A dental assistant may find this position a stepping stone to become a dental hygienist. Dental hygienists make significantly more each year and you only need two years of school to become one.

Job Description of a Dental Assistant

Most dentists that perform intensive dental procedures or surgeries have a dental assistant. A general dentist who doesn’t carry out surgeries may not have a dental assistant. A general dentist may be more inclined to have multiple dental hygienists to assist cleaning patient’s teeth.

A dental assistant may also conduct tests which are not very complicated and do not necessarily require the intervention of a dentist or dental surgeon. In small dental clinics, a dental assistant may be required to schedule appointments and assist the dentist in many tasks apart from the dental procedures, diagnoses, treatment, and patient care. Most dental assistants work closely with dental hygienist and are supervised by the dentist.

Starting as a dental assistant has its pros. You learn dental terminology, chair side etiquette, and dental office procedures. Earning a paycheck is not so bad either. However, some individuals use dental assisting as a career stepping stone to transition into becoming a dental hygienist. Though both positions work in a dental office the vary and have different responsibilities. A dental hygienist has a larger role in contributing to the patient’s treatment rather than office administrative, preparation, and cleaning of equipment.

If you decide to transition to further your career, some schools offer bridge programs that take into consideration your Dental Assistant training and experience. This can also give you an edge over other candidates applying to a Dental Hygienist program. For more information talk to your guidance counselor or an admission representative.

Dental Assistant Job Posting

Let’s look at a job description posted by the Department of Veterans Affairs. As you’ll notice, a dental assistant has many duties. This job announcement is looking for a person to perform the following responsibilities:

Chairside Assisting:

  • Sets up operatory for planned dental procedure with minimum of interruptions after procedure begins.
  • Cleans operatory/equipment for timely turnover.
  • Passes instruments to and from the dentist safely, accurately, and efficiently.
  • Keeps operative field clear of debris and retracts oral tissues effectively and comfortably for the patient.
  • Assists in routine general dental procedures.

Dental Imaging:

  • Images are characterized by diagnostic quality, accurately oriented and exposed.
  • Dental imaging safety techniques are utilized, and retakes are minimized.
  • Infection Control and Equipment Reprocessing.
  • Demonstrates proper infection control procedures in setting up and cleaning operatories and equipment.
  • Instruments are properly prepared for sterilization per SPD standards.
  • Demonstrates knowledge and maintains standards in the use and reprocessing of Reusable Medical Equipment (RME).
  • Demonstrates proper radiography infection control procedures.

Clinic Support:

  • Assists dentist in charting findings and treatment plans and completed procedures in patient records.
  • Assists with documentation in electronic patient records utilizing Dental Record Manager Plus (DRM+) to help maintain a current and correct dental medical record.

Patient Safety:

  • Modifies care as necessitated by patient’s age and abilities (patient transfer and position).
  • Provides accurate and understandable instructions to patients.
  • Participates in patient identification and “time-out” procedures per Joint Commission requirements.
  • Monitors patient condition during treatment, being alert for signs of physical distress.

Dental Laboratory Functions:

  • Pours impressions and prepares study models.
  • Makes custom trays.
  • Direct Patient Care.
  • Removes sutures.
  • Takes impressions for diagnostic casts and preliminary impressions for prosthetic appliances.

Operating Room:

  • Assists dentist with operating room procedures.
  • Follows operating room protocol, including sterile technique.
  • Dispense and administer medications from Omnicell under doctor’s orders.
  • Complete Unlicensed Assistive Personnel (UAP) training.
  • Maintain current Omnicell access card through Pharmacy Service.

This position was posted to run 12/21/2018 until 01/18/2019 with a salary range of $26,587 to $48,385 per year per year on USAjobs.gov (link opens in a new tab). USAjobs.gov is an official website of the United States government and part of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Free Resources for Students and Teachers

The American Dental Association (link opens in a new tab) has resources to help those interested in a dentistry career. There is also a specific information guide for dental assistants (link opens in a new tab). For elementary teachers, there is even an Elementary Toolkit on the site.

Related Careers to Research:

Dental Assistant Career Video Transcript

Dental assistants help make dentists more efficient and patients more comfortable. They perform a blend of direct patient care and administrative duties. Dental assistants prepare the dental exam room, sterilizing and setting up equipment. During appointments, dental assistants may take x-rays, hand dentists instruments, keep patients’ mouths dry, and teach patients about proper oral hygiene. On the administrative side, they maintain patient records, schedule appointments, and work with patients on billing and payment.

Essential skills for dental assistants include detail orientation, finger dexterity, listening, and organization. Almost all dental assistants work in dentists’ offices. They wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves, and follow safety procedures to protect themselves and patients. About one-third of dental assistants work part time. Some work evenings or weekends. Requirements to enter the field differ: some states require graduation from an accredited program, and licensure or certification. Other states have no formal educational requirements, and assistants learn their duties on-the-job.

Article Citations

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Dental Assistant.

National Center for O*NET Development. 31-9091.00. O*NET OnLine.

The video is Public Domain from the U. S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.