by Kaitlin Louie
Dental assistants provide patient care and administrative assistance in dentists’ offices. Typically, their tasks include preparing patients for treatment, sterilizing dental instruments, keeping dental treatment records, organizing dentists’ work areas, processing x-rays, and advising patients on dental hygiene. They also work alongside dentists and dental hygienists during patient cleanings and other procedures, handing them the tools they need and keeping patients’ mouths dry. While dentists and dental hygienists focus on patient cleanings and the diagnosis and treatment of patients’ oral conditions, dental assistants perform the necessary logistical and peripheral services to enable dentists’ offices to run smoothly, and consequently help patients to receive adequate care.
Due to the increasing awareness of the importance of dental health in people’s overall well-being, roles in dental health and hygiene should experience a high rate of growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), the employment of dental assistants is expected to grow by 31 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is much faster than the national average for all occupations.
The path to become a dental assistant depends on one’s state of residence. Some employers allow dental assistants to train on-the-job without certification, relevant education, or previous work experience. However, other states may require dental assistants to undergo training at an accredited program; such programs generally take 9-12 months to complete and lead to a diploma or certificate. Two year programs are also available at some institutions and lead to an associate degree. Employers might also require dental assistants to receive and maintain certification from the Dental Assisting National Board.
Before deciding to pursue a dental assisting career, consider the questions below.
- How does one become a dental assistant?
- What kinds of dental assistant programs are available?
- What certification requirements and various levels of certification exist for dental assistants?
- What do the Certified Dental Assistant and the Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant exams specifically involve?
- How do I renew my dental assistant certification(s)?
- What are the typical job responsibilities of the dental assistant?
- What tools and technology do dental assistants routinely use?
- What key skills are required for the dental assistant profession?
- What is the typical job environment for dental assistants?
- What professional associations are available to dental assistants?
- What is the employment outlook for dental assistants?
- What is the average dental assistant salary?
- What are some careers that are related to dental assisting?
To discover more about the typical responsibilities and work environment for dental assistants, read CareerColleges.com’s interview with Ashley Brown. Learn more about dental assisting educational programs from instructor Aimee Gaspari’s interview.
How does one become a dental assistant?
The path to becoming a dental assistant varies, and is dependent upon the requirements of one’s state and region of residence. However, the general steps to become a dental assistant include the following:
- Research the specific requirements to practice dental assisting in one’s state.
- Attend a dental assistant school that has been approved by one’s state of residence or complete a state-determined number of paid hours working as a dental assistant in a licensed dentist’s office.
- Pass both a written and a practical exam and meet other state requirements for dental assistant certification.
- Submit any necessary documentation to the dental assistant licensing agency of one’s state.
- Apply for jobs in one’s area.
What kinds of dental assistant programs are available?
Dental assistant programs are often available at community colleges, state universities, trade schools, and vocational schools, and typically lead to a diploma or certificate. Such programs typically take about a year to complete, though some educational institutions also offer 2-year associate degrees in dental assisting.
Associate degrees require more units than certificates or diplomas, and typically include a certain number of general education requirements in addition to degree-specific courses. In contrast, the curriculum for a dental assistant diploma or certificate is generally only comprised of courses that relate to dental assisting. The subjects covered in dental assistant programs typically include:
- Dental Office Practices and Procedures—performance of administrative and secretarial duties such as keeping track of patient records, organizing client payments, and scheduling appointments. The use of office management software, the submission of insurance claims, and the proper adherence to dental laws and ethics.
- Chair-side Patient Procedures—preparing patients for cleaning and other dental procedures. Proper organization of treatment area, methods of infection control and equipment sterilization, and four-handed dentistry practices. Assisting dentists and dental hygienists with patient examinations and procedures.
- Dental Materials—the safe and effective use of dental materials such as dental cements, cleaning agents, anti-cavity sealants, and study cast materials.
- Dental Science—the development and treatment of various dental conditions, such as cavities, gingivitis, and gum recession. The methods and principles of proper dental care and oral hygiene. Tooth numbering conventions, oral anatomy, and the structure and function of the teeth, gums, and tongue. The different human body systems and how they relate to dental health.
- Dental Radiology—the operation of dental radiographic equipment and the development of patient x-rays. The different kinds of dental x-rays and films, and safety regulations for radiographic procedures.
- Dental Laboratory Practices—taking study casts of patients’ teeth.
Dental assistant programs may also include specialized courses for tasks such as coronal polishing and/or the application of certain substances to patients’ teeth for anesthetic or cavity prevention purposes. As some states require dental assistants to take an exam and receive certification before performing the four specialized duties described below, candidates may want to consider programs that provide classes in these subjects:
- Coronal Polishing—the removal of plaque, stains, and other soft deposits from teeth.
- Application of Topical Anesthetics—the use of topical anesthesia to temporarily numb a certain area of a patient’s mouth.
- Application of Fluoride—the direct application of fluoride to teeth as an anti-cavity measure.
- Application of Dental Sealants—the application of a thin layer of sealant over teeth and between teeth fissures in order to provide protection from cavity-forming food residues and bacteria.
What certification requirements and various levels of certification exist for dental assistants?
Professional certification requirements for dental assistants vary from state to state (please note that professional certifications are different from the diplomas/certificates one receives by completing an accredited educational program in dental assisting). Due to this variance, one should research the specific requirements of one’s state of residence. Candidates that wish to work in a state that requires dental assistant certification should apply to take one of the following exams, both of which are offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB):
- The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam consists of three separate exams: General Chairside, Radiation Health and Safety, and Infection Control.
- The Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA) exam consists of the same three exams provided in the CDA exam, but also adds four additional exams in the specialized tasks that dental assistants are authorized to perform in some states: Coronal Polish, Sealants, Topical Anesthetic, and Topical Fluoride.
DANB requires all exam candidates to have either completed an accredited dental assisting program or received a high school diploma and accrued a certain number of on-the-job training and working hours. Candidates must also hold a valid certification in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
What do the Certified Dental Assistant and the Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant exams specifically involve?
The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam consists of the following three components:
- General Chairside: 120 questions on clinical and lab procedures. Topics include but are not limited to: the proper collection, recording, and charting of patient data; four-handed dentistry procedures; preparation of treatment area, set up of dental equipment; patient education before and after treatment; dental office responsibilities.
- Radiation Health and Safety: 100 questions on the proper technique for various radiology procedures. Topics include but are not limited to: the required equipment for such procedures; protective measures during radiographic tests, and how to expose and develop patient x-rays.
- Infection Control: 100 questions on maintaining sanitation and infection control in the workplace. Topics include but are not limited to: hand hygiene; protective gear for patients and health care providers; proper disposal of treatment materials; tool sterilization; the cleaning of work areas; safety precautions and first aid procedures.
The Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA) exam includes all three components of the CDA exam, but also includes separate exams for each of the following four topics:
- Coronal Polish: 100 questions on oral anatomy; the causes, effects, types, and proper removal of dental deposits (including plaque, calculus, and stains); coronal polishing procedures, techniques, and precautions; polishing equipment and agents.
- Sealants: 50 questions on sealant purposes (i.e. to seal out bacteria in dental fissures and pits); classes of sealants and their application; infection control procedures.
- Topical Anesthetics: 50 questions on preparing patients for application of topical anesthetics; classes of anesthetic agents; anesthetic application purposes, placement, and precautions.
- Topical Fluoride: 50 questions on fluoride’s purpose in dental care; the preparation of fluoride for application; potential patient reactions to fluoride solutions; post-treatment practices.
For dental assistants who possess a CDA certification and who wish to practice one or more of the four state-regulated duties outlined above, single exams and certificates of competency are available in each of the four subjects. Please keep in mind that not all states allow dental assistants to practice these duties even with a CPFDA certification or a relevant certificate of competency; therefore, one should always check the requirements and regulations of one’s state before signing up for any of the DANB exams.
How do I renew my dental assistant certification(s)?
DANB requires that all certified dental assistants renew their certifications every year. In order to recertify, dental assistants must complete a certain number of Continuing Dental Education (CDE) credits. The more certifications one has with DANB, the more CDE courses he or she must take. CDE credits can be fulfilled through a number of different avenues, including classes provided by such organizations as the Dale Foundation and the American Dental Assistant Association. In addition to CDE courses, certified dental assistants must also submit a re-certification fee to DANB and maintain a valid CPR certification in order to renew their credentials.
What are the typical job responsibilities of the dental assistant?
The main responsibilities of the dental assistant include but are not limited to:
- Cleaning dental instruments and preparing dental work areas for patient examinations and treatment
- Preparing patient for treatments by making sure they are comfortable and properly situated in the dental chair and debriefing them on certain procedures
- Working alongside dentists and dental hygienists to ensure that dental procedures run smoothly
- Expose dental x-rays and perform other laboratory tasks under the instruction of dentists and dental hygienists
- Schedule patient appointments
- Record patient health and treatment information
- Manage patient billing and payments
- Advise patients in proper oral care and hygiene
- Create and polish study casts of patients’ teeth
Depending on state regulations, some dental assistants are allowed to perform the following tasks after receiving training:
- Application of sealants, fluoride, and/or topical anesthetics
- Coronal polishing
What tools and technology do dental assistants routinely use?
While dental assistants do not generally clean patients’ teeth, they regularly stand alongside dentists and dental hygienists during patient procedures, handing them tools and keeping patients’ mouths dry. Dental assistants also typically prepare dentists’ work areas, and must therefore have familiarity with the equipment, tools, and agents commonly used for dental procedures and examinations. Tools that dental assistants typically use include:
- Dental supplies and accessories—rubber dams, molar clamps, dental forceps, electric root canal equipment, air-water syringes, mouth suction equipment, and other handheld dental devices
- Orthodontic pliers—dental and contouring pliers
- Steam sterilizers and autoclaves—steam cleaners for dental equipment
In addition to using the above tools, dental assistants may use various software programs to keep track of patient appointments and information, and to handle client communications. Examples of such software include accounting, spreadsheet, and medical software programs.
What key skills are required for the dental assistant profession?
As dental assistants typically work closely with patients, dental hygienists, and dentists to ensure that examinations and procedures run smoothly, they should be able to work efficiently and interact pleasantly with several different people in a small work space. Skills that are important for the dental assistant profession include:
- Coordination—much of a dental assistant’s work consists of helping dentists and dental hygienists during patient treatments by handing tools to them and keeping patients’ mouths dry. This method, called four-handed dentistry, requires coordination on the part of the dental assistant in order to provide effective patient care.
- Interpersonal—dental assistants interact on a daily basis with both patients and dental care providers. Patients might feel and express anxiety about their dental conditions or required procedures, and dental assistants must often work to make sure patients are comfortable and ready for their procedure.
- Listening—dental assistants must be able to listen carefully to and follow precise directions from dentists and dental hygienists. In addition, they should be able to ask detailed questions and record important information about patients’ medical histories, past and future treatments, and insurance plans.
- Organizational—one of the primary responsibilities of the dental assistant is to maintain the organization of the patient treatment areas and administrative sections of a dentist’s office. Dental assistants must set out the proper tools for a procedure and hand them as needed to a dentist or dental hygienist, as well as schedule patient appointments and handle patient payments and insurance information.
- Attention to Detail—dental assistants should be able to understand and implement important dental care protocols, help dentists with complex treatments, and accurately record patient information, tasks that all require an attention to detail.
What is the typical job environment for dental assistants?
Almost all dental assistants work in dentists’ offices, which are typically clean, brightly lit, and pleasant environments. However, they can also work at dental schools, physicians’ offices, nursing homes, and public health centers. While the majority of dental assistants work full-time, almost 40 percent of dental assistants worked part-time in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov). Dental assistants’ hours vary according to the hours of their place of employment. For example, dental assistants may be required to work during the evenings or on the weekends at offices that are open during these times.
As mentioned previously, dental assistants interact on a daily basis with dentists, dental hygienists, and patients. Health risks associated with working as a dental assistant may include the risk of contact with patients’ blood, often in the form of bleeding gums during cleanings. Dental assistants also typically spend long hours standing beside or across from dentists and dental hygienists, handing them the necessary tools to complete dental procedures; such tasks can lead to physical issues such as back or leg pain and fatigue.
What professional associations are available to dental assistants?
The primary professional association available to dental assistants is the American Dental Assistant Association (ADAA). This association provides members with professional, life, and medical insurance options, as well as considerable discounts on certain products and services, including work-related supplies. ADAA also offers its members job listing options, discounts on travel, and online continuing education courses. Dental assistant students can also apply for ADAA scholarships that reward academic achievement.
The ADAA has multiple chapters in various states across the country, including California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas, which are the states with the highest level of employment for this occupation (bls.gov, 2011). To join this association, one must submit an application form and pay the required fee.
What is the employment outlook for dental assistants?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), the employment of dental assistants is expected to grow by 31% nationally between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is much faster than the average for all occupations. This strong employment outlook can be attributed to the increasingly publicized link between oral health and overall health, which has increased consumer demand for dental services. The baby boomer population will also contribute significantly to the clientele at dentists’ offices, as they will experience more dental complications as they grow older.
States with the highest employment level for dental assistants as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
What is the average dental assistant salary?
The mean compensation for dental assistants in 2011 nationally was $34,740 per year, or $16.70 per hour (bls.gov, 2011). While the majority of dental assistants work full-time, almost 40 percent work part-time. Salaries and benefits vary among different employers.
Percentile wage estimates for dental assistants as of May 2011:
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
Top paying states for dental assistants as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
District of Columbia
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
- Medical Assistants perform clinical and administrative tasks in health care settings such as hospitals and physicians’ clinics. They schedule patient appointments, manage patients’ payments and insurance, take patients’ vitals, assist physicians during examinations and procedures, conduct labwork, and otherwise ensure that the health care setting in which they work runs smoothly.
- Dental Hygienists provide both preventative oral care and advice on how patients can optimize the health of their teeth, gums, and tongue. They clean patients’ teeth, examine patients’ mouths for evidence of oral diseases, and evaluate patient x-rays.
- Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides assist occupational therapists in providing care, treatment, and rehabilitation services to patients with disabilities, illnesses, or injuries. They help patients to regain the physical strength and skills needed for daily life.
- Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides work under the guidance and direction of physical therapists in order to help patients recover from illness, injury, and surgery. They work to help patients reduce their physical pain and regain mobility and strength.
- Surgical Technologists work under the direction of surgeons, organizing equipment in operating rooms, and by helping surgeons and nurses during patient procedures.
- Pharmacy Technicians assist licensed pharmacists in providing patients with prescription medications.
Sources and Additional Information
"http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm" | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Dental Assistants
"http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/31-9091.00" | O*Net Online: Dental Assistants
"http://www.dentalassistant.org/" | American Dental Assistant Association
"http://www.danb.org/" | Dental Assisting National Board
Kaitlin is a content writer and editor for CareerColleges.com and CityTownInfo.com. She received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English Literature, and aspires to be a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She enjoys tutoring students in writing and social dancing on the weekends.