How to Become a Dental Assistant

What is a Dental Assistant?

When you visit the dentist’s office, and you’re taken to the exam chair and are greeted by a worker that asks you questions about your dental health, inspects your teeth, and administers X-rays, you’re probably getting your first interaction with a dental assistant. These workers provide valuable support services in dental offices from the front office to patient care to working directly with dentists during dental care procedures.

Dental assistants provide critical support in all facets of the dental business. That includes everything from answering phones and setting appointments to doing an in-depth inspection of a patient’s teeth and gums to preparing dental tools for a dentist to perform a dental procedure.

In other words, dental assistants can be thought of as the glue that holds a dental practice together. Their responsibilities range far and wide, and their on-the-job performance has a direct and significant impact on the quality of care that dental patients receive.

What is a Registered Dental Assistant?

Like a dental assistant, a registered dental assistant is tasked with a wide variety of duties that run the gamut from clerical work to clinical work with patients.

The primary difference between a dental assistant and a registered dental assistant is that the latter has a more robust educational background. Whereas many states have no formal education requirements in place for dental assistants, and therefore leave it up to individual dental practices to provide on-the-job training, a registered dental assistant must complete a dental assistant program that’s accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.

Furthermore, prospective registered dental assistants must pass a state-level examination and meet experience requirements as well. For example, some states may require dental assistants to have three years’ of experience on the job (in addition to the other requirements noted above) before they are allowed to use the registered dental assistant (RDA) designation.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

As noted to earlier, a dental assistant has an array of responsibilities in a dental office.

For starters, dental assistants often complete clerical work like answering phones and scheduling appointments. Dental assistants typically handle insurance billing and payments, and if a patient is not covered by insurance, they work with patients to find a suitable payment solution for the services rendered.

Another primary clerical duty that dental assistants perform is updating and maintaining patient records. For example, if, during an examination, the dentist notes the formation of a cavity, a dental assistant would notate the area in which the cavity is forming and add that note to the patient’s records. Likewise, each time you visit the dentist for a cleaning, a dental assistant is likely the party that makes a note of the date that you had the cleaning so that your file is up-to-date.

There are many other tasks assigned to dental assistants, many of which have to do with patient care. For example, a dental assistant is usually the one that helps you get comfortable in the dental chair and prepares the workspace for the dentist. Oftentimes, dental assistants will conduct a basic examination of your gums, teeth, tongue, and lips, as well as look for any changes to your oral health by comparing your current health to the records of your last dental visit.

Related: How to Become a Physician Assistant

Other duties commonly assigned to dental assistants are sterilizing dental equipment, handing necessary tools to the dentist during a dental procedure, and drying a patient’s mouth using suction. Once a dental visit is complete, dental assistants tend to offer instruction about oral health care as needed. For example, if a child has a number of new cavities, the dental assistant might offer the child some pointers for improved oral health, like increasing the frequency of brushing, using mouthwash, and staying away from sugary foods.

Dental assistants – particularly registered dental assistants – are generally responsible for taking dental X-rays and completing lab tasks as well. In some states, they can perform basic dental procedures, like applying sealant or fluoride to a patient’s teeth, polishing teeth using a process called coronal polishing, and applying anesthetic to areas of the mouth in which the dentist needs to work. For example, when you need to have a tooth pulled, the dental assistant applies local anesthetic using a shot to numb the area before the dentist begins work to remove the tooth.

Where Does a Dental Assistant Work?

By and large, most dental assistants work in dental offices. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a full 91 percent of dental assistants are employed in a dental office setting. Dental assistants don’t always work directly with dentists, though.

Within the office, some dental assistants might work exclusively in the front office, conducting clerical tasks. Those with patient care training are more likely to work in the examination area and assist dentists and dental hygienists with dental procedures.

Though rare, some dental assistants work in doctor’s offices where they provide basic dental care, like examinations or dental X-rays. Likewise, some experienced dental assistants might work in an education capacity, like teaching dental assistant-related courses at a trade school or community college.

Why Do We Need Dental Assistants?

Dental assistants provide key skills and knowledge that impact both the functioning of a dental office and the quality of care that dental patients receive.

For example, since dentists and dental hygienists cannot spend hours with each patient, the need for dental assistants to get the patient comfortable, prepare the workspace, conduct initial examinations, and perform duties like X-rays and basic cleaning is very high. In other words, we need dental assistants to ensure that proper care is given in a timely manner.

Likewise, since they’re usually tasked with clinical and clerical duties, dental assistants help keep dental offices running smoothly. Without their ability to update patient records, schedule appointments, handle insurance payments, and issue bills to patients, the day-to-day operations of the facility would be understandably much slower.

What are the Requirements to Become a Dental Assistant?

Educational Requirements

At a minimum, a prospective dental assistant must have a high school diploma. Though workers can enter this field right out of high school, they must complete a period of on-the-job training. The extent of the training as well as the areas in which the worker is trained is up to their specific place of employment.

For example, a dental assistant that’s employed in a dental office that specializes in working with children would likely have much more on-the-job training in pediatric practices than a dental assistant that works in an all-purpose dental office. Likewise, a dental assistant that works primarily in the front office of a dental practice would receive more clerical training (i.e., computers, scheduling, billing, etc.) than a dental assistant that works primarily in a clinical setting with patients.

Some dental assistant positions require post-secondary training before workers will be hired. Most commonly, this is in the form of a one-year diploma or certificate program that can be completed at a community college or trade school. During their studies, students in these programs focus on learning basic dental knowledge, like locations of specific teeth, common dental tools, and how to make patients comfortable.

These one-year programs aim to prepare students for entry-level positions in a dental office. As such, in addition to dental coursework, students likely also have some level of training in clerical duties, like managing appointments and working with proprietary computer software for dental offices.

Less common are two-year dental assistant programs. These programs usually culminate with an associate’s degree in dental assisting, and have more in-depth studies in dentistry than one-year programs provide. Included in the coursework is learning about the anatomy of the mouth, including teeth and tooth structure, the gums, and the bones that make up the mouth and jaw area. It’s also typical for students in these two-year programs to have laboratory experience in which they learn about dental tools and how to use them, as well as how to assist dentists or dental hygienists during dental procedures.

Both one-year and two-year dental assisting programs usually have moderate admissions requirements, most typically that a student has a high school diploma or GED and a satisfactory GPA.

Licensing/Certification Requirements

Because dental assistants are entry-level workers, there are usually no licensing or certification requirements that have to be completed before beginning work. However, some states might require anything from passing a professional exam to being licensed, certified, or registered to work in certain positions.

For example, dental assistants that are responsible for administering dental X-rays are often required to be licensed in order to do so. What’s more, some states require dental assistants to have certification in infection control, given that they work in a field in which the passage of diseases can occur. Dental-specific procedures like coronal polishing typically carry certification requirements as well. The Dental Assisting National Board is responsible for overseeing many such certifications.

What Do You Learn in a Dental Assistant Degree Program?

In typical dental assistant degree programs, students gain knowledge and skills pertaining to:

  • Dental terminology – To be able to communicate effectively with patients and with other dental professionals, dental assistants must know and understand proper dental terms.
  • Anatomy – Students become familiar with teeth, their structure and function, as well as the bone structures and tissues that dentists might work on, like the jawbone and the gums.
  • Dental instruments – Since dental assistants are responsible for preparing instruments for use by the dentist, the must be able to properly identify and sterilize dental equipment.
  • Preparing dental charts – Dental assistants are often tasked with recording patient information into their chart, like what procedures are done and the dates those procedures took place.
  • Chairside manner – Dental assistant students learn how to interact with and communicate with patients in a way that’s comforting and reassuring.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Assistant?

The length of time it takes to become a dental assistant varies widely. In some cases, workers can be hired with no experience and a high school diploma and are trained on the job to perform dental assistant duties. Naturally, in that case, it doesn’t take long at all to become a dental assistant.

However, some dental practices and some states require more formal training before someone can work as a dental assistant. Many dental assistant programs take just one year to complete and typically end with a diploma or certificate. Other dental assistant programs take two years and culminate with an associate’s degree, though these programs are much less common. However, these two-year programs are much more likely to be required for a student that wishes to become a registered dental assistant.

What Skills are Required for a Dental Assistant?

Though being a dental assistant requires a certain level of technical knowledge and expertise, there are some basic skills needed to be successful in this type of job. Those skills include:

  • Organization – Whether a dental assistant is working in the front office with patient records or in an examination space working alongside a dentist, they must be able to stay organized and keep a clean and uncluttered workspace to ensure the safety of the patient and that proper recordkeeping is taking place.
  • Detail-oriented – Dental assistants must be able to follow specific procedures for working with patients. What’s more, they must be able to follow instructions provided by dentists, dental hygienists, and others in the dental office.
  • People skills ­– Since dental assistants work in close proximity with both clients and other dental office staff, it’s imperative that they have the necessary skills to speak effectively to others and listen to what others are saying.
  • Manual dexterity – Dental assistants need to be able to use their fingers and hands because they work in very tight quarters and use precision tools to address a variety of dental issues. Having good hand-eye coordination is another trait that’s helpful for dental assistants.
  • Outgoing – A personal trait that dental assistants should have is to be outgoing. Being able to engage various people of different ages and backgrounds in conversation is a helpful way to make the patient feel more relaxed when they come to the dentist.
  • Stamina – Dental assistants often work long hours seated, and hunched over their patients. What’s more, their fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders can fatigue from using them so much throughout the day. Having physical stamina to conduct this type of work is absolutely necessary.

What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants reap many benefits from their jobs. Some of the primary advantages of this career include:

  • Favorable work schedule – The vast majority of dental assistants work in dental offices, which typically maintain normal working hours of 8-5, Monday through Friday. This is a favorable work schedule that frees up evenings and weekends to spend with family and friends.
  • High need – The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that dental assisting will grow at a 19 percent rate between now and 2026. That’s good news for people that wish to seek a career in this field, as jobs will likely be plentiful.
  • Helping others – Dental assistants can reap much satisfaction out of knowing that they work to help other people have a better quality of life.
  • Opportunity for advancement – Some dental assistants can begin their careers right out of high school. However, with additional experience and education, they can take on more responsibilities and make more money.
  • Exciting work environment – Because dental assistants tackle so many different kinds of tasks over the course of the workday, there are many different experiences that keep the workday exciting.

People that work in this field will find that there are some negatives to being a dental assistant. These include:

  • Relatively low pay – On average, dental assistants make less than $37,000 per year. Though that’s a good wage for a position that doesn’t require much in the way of training or schooling, it’s still not a lot of money.
  • Little employment outside dental offices – Since over 90 percent of dental assistants work in dental offices, there are very few opportunities to work in a different environment.
  • Physically demanding work – Though it might not seem like a physical job, being a dental assistant requires long hours of sitting, bending over, stretching across patients, and so forth. The physical demands can get tiring as the day goes on.

How Much Does a Dental Assistant Make?

The primary factors that influence how much a worker earns include level of education, level of experience, and the location in which they work. For dental assistants, those factors vary quite widely. As of May 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, dental assistants make $36,940.

However, when the pay scale is broken down further, it’s revealed that the lowest 10 percent of earners in this career field earn $25,460 on average each year. These workers tend to be those that begin work right after high school and have no formal education or training beyond on-the-job training they receive at work.

On the other end of the spectrum, more experienced and educated dental assistants that make up the top 10 percent of earners make around $52,000 per year, on average. This level of compensation would be more likely to be found for workers that have five or more years of experience on the job and/or a higher degree of education, like a one-year dental assistant certificate or an associate’s degree in dental assisting. Registered dental assistants would also likely be included in the top 10 percent of earners.

What is the Job Outlook for Dental Assistants?

Employment in this career area is predicted to be quite strong over the next 8-10 years. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that dental assisting will grow by 19 percent through the end of the next decade. That’s robust growth that is far faster than is typical.

Part of the reason for the increased need for dental assistants is an increased focus on all forms of health care, from medical and mental health to vision and dental health as well. The move towards wellness and preventative medicine has led to an increased demand for dental services by patients that want to avoid long-term issues. As a result, dental offices might see more patients, more often, necessitating additional dental assistants to help handle the workload.

Additionally, as the population continues to get older, more and more dental problems and needs arise. For example, as the Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age, a very large segment of the population will require services like dentures and crowns. Again, the demand for these types of services on dental offices requires that dentists hire more and more dental assistants to handle daily tasks.

What Professions are Similar to Dental Assistant?

There are many careers that offer a similar work experience as dental assisting. They include:

Dental HygienistDental hygienists perform more advanced dental procedures than dental assistants. For example, where a dental assistant might be able to examine a patient for the presence of cavities, a dental hygienist can remove plaque, apply fluoride treatments, and seal teeth to help prevent future cavities from forming.

Medical Assistant – Like dental assistants, medical assistants perform both clinical and clerical duties as part of their daily duties. That includes scheduling appointments, billing patients for services rendered, and updating medical records, as well as tending to the comfort of patients, assisting medical personnel with procedures, and performing basic medical tasks, like taking blood pressure and heart rate measurements.

Occupational Therapy Assistant – Assistants in the field of occupational therapy work under the purview of a trained occupational therapist. Like medical assistants and dental assistants, they are trained to perform basic tasks, which typically revolves around executing treatment plans for their patients. For example, an occupational therapy assistant with a patient that is learning to walk again after being in a car accident might help the patient complete stretching and other exercise activities to strengthen their legs.

Pharmacy TechnicianPharmacy technicians are entry-level workers that assist pharmacists in ordering, stocking, organizing, and dispensing medications to customers. Their duties might include taking customer information, collecting payment for prescriptions, measuring medications, and packaging and labeling prescriptions. They are also often responsible for managing inventory, answering the phone, and answering basic questions that patrons have about their medications.

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