Dental assistants greatly increase the efficiency of the dentist in the delivery of quality oral health care and are valuable members of the dental care team. Dental assistants work under the supervision of dentists performing a variety of tasks that help dentists carry out procedures and ensure the office runs smoothly. The procedures that dental assistants are allowed to perform on patients can vary by state.
Dental assistants perform a variety of patient care, office, and laboratory duties, and often work chair-side as dentists examine and treat patients. They make patients as comfortable as possible in the dental chair, prepare them for treatment, and obtain their dental records.
Assisting the dentist during a variety of treatment procedures.
Taking and developing dental radiographs (x-rays).
Asking about the patient's medical history and taking blood pressure and pulse.
Serving as an infection control officer, developing infection control protocol and preparing and sterilizing instruments and equipment.
Helping patients feel comfortable before, during and after dental treatment.
Providing patients with instructions for oral care following surgery or other dental treatment Procedures, such as the placement of a restoration (filling).
Teaching patient’s appropriate oral hygiene strategies to maintain oral health.
Taking impressions of patients' teeth for study casts.
Performing office management tasks that often require the use of a personal computer.
Communicating with patients and suppliers.
Helping to provide direct patient care in all dental specialties, including orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, periodontics and oral surgery.
Students typically complete a dental assistant program at either a community college or technical school. Programs often take one to two years to complete, depending on whether a student is pursuing a certificate, diploma or associate degree. In addition to classroom teaching, most programs provide hands-on learning opportunities in a clinical setting.
Another way dental assistants-in-training can gain experience and stand out from the competition is by completing an externship. Numerous academic programs offer externships as a voluntary component of coursework, providing invaluable real-world training opportunities. During this time, students can hone their skills in areas of chairside assisting, oral anatomy, dental pathology, radiology, oral hygiene and dental pharmacology.
Dental assistants can specialize in many different areas of oral care. In addition to general dentistry, other areas open to experienced and educated dental assistants include pediatric dentistry, endodontics, periodontics, maxillofacial surgery, prosthodontics and dentofacial orthodontics.
Certification and licensure requirements vary by state, and students can learn more about these mandates by contacting their state dental board or by visiting the Dental Assistant National Board’s website. In states where certification is necessary, students typically pass the DANB’s Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination.
In addition to the CDA examination, students may also choose to complete the National Entry Level Dental Assistant test, also administered by the DANB. Students looking to work in specialized dental assisting can undertake further certifications.
Graduates should have a variety of job opportunities, either in a general dentistry setting or in a specialty area. Dental assisting is one of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S., and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of dental assistant positions is set to grow 25 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022, much higher than the overall average for job growth.
After working for a number of years, dental assistants may choose to complete an advanced degree. Those who obtained an associate degree during their initial academic training can often transfer existing credits to a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. This 4-year degree opens the door for increased career mobility and greater earning potential.
Licensure requirements for dental assistants vary by state. States that do require dental assistants to become certified often require certification through the Dental Assisting National Board. The DANB offers several certifications for dental assistants, including the Certified Dental Assistant credential.
This two-year degree covers many of the same topics delivered in certificate and diploma programs but provides a more holistic and in-depth education. Students take general education coursework alongside core dental assisting classes. After completing an associate program in dental assisting, graduates should possess an assortment of skills to serve them well in their careers.