Orthodontist Assistant Career and Training Programs

The Basics

Most people want a nice smile. But not everyone is born with straight teeth. Misaligned teeth do not just affect your appearance. Crooked teeth can also cause difficulty chewing and lead to wearing away of the tooth enamel. The good news is with the help of an orthodontist and orthodontist assistant; misaligned teeth can be fixed.

What is an Orthodontist Assistant?

An orthodontist assistant is a dental professional that helps and supports dentists who specialize in misaligned teeth. Orthodontics assistants work alongside orthodontists with a focus on diagnosing and fixing crooked teeth and correcting bites, such as an overbite or underbite.

To improve a patient’s bite and the appearance of the teeth, various oral appliances, such as aligners, braces, and retainers may be used. The techniques and procedures used vary based on the problem with the teeth and the patient’s wishes.

Think of an orthodontist assistant as the “right-hand man” for an orthodontist. Assistants may do everything from greeting and preparing patients to helping the orthodontist during procedures. Most orthodontic assistants work in orthodontic dental offices. A small number of assistants may also work in clinics and dental assisting programs.

What is a Certified Orthodontist Assistant?

A certified orthodontist assistant is a dental assisting specialist that has met the minimum requirements to earn the title of Certified Orthodontic Assistant from a professional dental organization. The two main certifying organizations include the Dental Assisting National Board and the American Association of Orthodontists. The requirements for certification vary between the two organizations but typically include a combination of work experience and training in orthodontics.

Becoming a certified orthodontic assistant has a few advantages. Orthodontic assistants that earn certification may make higher salaries and find it easier to get a job. Certified orthodontic assistants may also have more opportunities to advance into supervisory and educational positions.

What Does an Orthodontist Assistant Do?

Orthodontic assistants perform a wide variety of duties. The specific responsibilities may vary depending on individual state laws and on the size of the dental practice.

One of the primary duties of an orthodontic assistant is preparing patients for orthodontic procedures. Procedures may include placing, adjusting or removing braces, retainers, or aligners. Preparing patients may involve conducting a preliminary exam, taking dental x-rays, and tooth measurements.

Assistants also need to make an impression of the patient’s teeth. Creating a dental impression involves selecting and preparing the correct material to make dental casts. Next, the assistant positions the patient appropriately to get an accurate cast of the teeth. Orthodontic assistants also prepare patient’s teeth for procedures, such as bonding and placing orthodontic brackets.

Another important responsibility of an orthodontic assistant is to help the orthodontists during procedures. Assisting may involve selecting correct appliances and tools to pass to the dentist. They may also help dentists apply braces, wires, and brackets. Orthodontic assistants may also remove orthodontic bands from the surface of the teeth.

Part of the job involves explaining procedures to the patients. Orthodontic assistants also provide patients with home care instructions. For example, assistants teach patients how to care for their teeth with braces or take care of appliances, such as aligners or retainer.

The specific tools and dental appliances an orthodontic assistant may use vary depending on the procedure. But they may use various types of cutting tools and utility pillars.

When procedures have been completed, it is often the responsibility of an orthodontic assistant to clean and sterilize dental instruments. Assistants may use various autoclaving, chemical vapors or dry heat to sterilize dental tools.

It’s also vital orthodontic assistants document procedures. They maintain patient records, which usually involves using dental software programs. Some orthodontic assistants may also answer the phones and schedule patient appointments.

Why Do We Need Orthodontist Assistants?

Orthodontics is considered a dental specialty. Diagnosing and straightening teeth takes a special level of training that is beyond what a typical dentist does. Orthodontic assistants also need to have the skills and knowledge beyond that of a general dental assistant.

The field of orthodontics plays a vital role in helping people maintain good oral health. Teeth that are misaligned can affect the way the jaw and teeth function. Crooked teeth can also be harder to clean, which may increase a person’s chances of tooth decay. Sometimes we need a little help getting the smile we want, which is why we need orthodontist assistants.

What Do You Learn in an Orthodontist Assistant Degree Program?

The classes taught in an orthodontic assisting program may vary. Typical classes may include the following:

Oral Anatomy: This class focuses on the anatomy of the mouth and teeth including teeth numbering and structure. Students also learn the eruption sequence, normal bite, and anatomy of the jaw.

Orthodontic Office Procedures: Students get an introduction to orthodontic office procedures, such as office practices, common dental software used, and patient privacy laws. Responding to emergency situations within a dental practice may also be covered.

Orthodontic Terminology: This class familiarizes students with common terms used in orthodontics. Students become familiar with terms related to tools used, procedures, and common dental appliances.

Dental Health Education: Students will study principles of patient education in an orthodontic setting. Topics discussed often include prevention of tooth decay, proper care of dental appliances, and dietary considerations with braces and aligners.

Infection Control: Infection control related to a dental practice is discussed including sterilization practices, instrument decontamination, and procedures for disposing of hazardous waste materials. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the American Dental Association regulations are also covered.

Dental Radiology: Students learn the effects of radiation, along with how to produce and process quality x-rays. Various intraoral x-ray techniques are discussed. Special attention is given to safety precautions.

Working with Bonding Agents: Orthodontic assistants learn how to select and work with bonding agents. Bonding agents are adhesive resins used to attach brackets to the teeth. Students learn how to mix, apply, and remove bonding agents from the teeth.

Orthodontic Appliances: This class introduces students to various fixed and removable appliances. Orthodontic assistants learn how to size and fit orthodontic bands, along with placing and removing separators.

Impression Techniques: Students get hands-on practice making dental molds using various techniques.

What are the Requirements to Become an Orthodontist Assistant?

Formal training is required to become an orthodontist assistant. The minimum level of education required may vary by state. For example, some states require an orthodontist assistant complete a two-year dental assistant program and additional training as an orthodontist assistant. Other states may have fewer requirements.

Usually, the minimum level of education required is the completion of a certificate program. There are very few standalone orthodontic assisting programs in the United States. It’s more common for dental assisting associate degree and certificate programs to include orthodontic courses.

Certificate programs in dental assisting that include orthodontic classes typically take a year to complete. Admission requirements usually include a high school diploma and a negative TB test. Most certificate programs take between nine months and a year to complete and can be found at technical schools, community colleges, and adult education schools.

Classes usually include general dental assisting courses, such as tooth anatomy, dental radiology, and infection control. Orthodontic assisting classes within the program typically focus on using bonding agents, preparing teeth for bonding, and cementing orthodontic bands.

Associate degree programs in dental assisting that may include courses in orthodontic assisting are also available. Admission requirements may vary, but completion of high school is usually required. Associate degree programs typically take two years to complete and require 60 to 68 units.

Classes may include dental office management, dental hygiene, and clinical experience in a dental practice. Orthodontic courses may also be incorporated into an associate degree program and are similar to those in a certificate program.

Licensure Requirements

Certain states, such as California, require an orthodontic assistant to hold an orthodontic assistant permit. Requirements to earn the permit may vary by state. But completion of an orthodontic assisting permit course is usually required.

Orthodontic assisting permit courses have different admission requirements. Many courses require students have six months of dental assisting experience or have completed a dental assisting certificate or associate degree program. Orthodontic assisting permit courses vary in length but are often between 60 and 84 hours. Coursework focuses on preparing teeth for brackets, placing archwires, and using bonding material.

Certification Requirements

Orthodontic assistants can also become certified. Although certification is usually not required for employment, it can increase your chances of getting a job. Certification for orthodontic assistants is offered through the Dental Assisting National Board and the American Association of Orthodontists.

There are different pathways to earn the title of Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA) through the Dental Assisting National Board. All pathways require current CPR certification. Possible paths to certification also include completion of an orthodontic assisting prep course from a dental assisting program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. An alternative pathway involves 3,500 hours of work experience as an orthodontic assistant.

Once applicants meet the eligibility requirements, they can take the two-part exam for certification. One part of the exam consists of 210 multiple choice questions on orthodontic assisting. The second part of the exam is 100 multiple choice questions on infection control.

The American Association of Orthodontists also offers voluntary certification for orthodontic clinical assistants. Eligibility to take the certification exam includes completion of a dental assisting or orthodontic assisting program and 2,250 hours of experience working as an orthodontic assistant.

What Does It Take to Become an Orthodontist Assistant?

Orthodontic assistants have several responsibilities. They not only have to understand the technical nature of the job, but they also provide customer service and education to patients. It takes several skills and traits to be a successful orthodontics assistant including the following:

  • Knowledge of Orthodontic Appliances: Having a thorough understanding of orthodontic appliances is an essential skill for orthodontic assistants. Assistants must know how to work with braces as well as non-transitional orthodontic appliances. They also need to be efficient in replacing and removing steel and elastomeric ligatures.
  • Ability to Make Dental Impressions: A thorough understanding of material preparation to make dental impressions is needed. Assistants must choose the appropriate material, place the cast to fit over the dental arches, and trim models as needed.
  • Understanding of OSHA Protocols and Infection Control: Orthodontic assistants should be experts in sterilization and disinfection procedures in an orthodontic practice. They must also be aware of Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standards. OSHA oversees orthodontic practices. Having an understanding of infection control and OSHA protocols not only protects the patients, but it also ensures the dental practices comply with federal safety and health regulations.
  • Efficiency in Taking Panoramic Dental X-Rays: Depending on the practice, orthodontic assistants may need to know how to take dental x-rays. Assistants must have the skill to properly position the machine and patient to obtain a quality image. It’s also essential to understand how to use protective equipment to keep patients safe.
  • Excellent Communication Skills: Communication is a big part of the job of an orthodontic assistant. In addition to greeting patients and explaining procedures, assistants often teach patients how to care for orthodontic appliances.
  • Microsoft Office Applications and Dental-Related Software Knowledge: Most orthodontic practices use electronic medical records. Assistants should be skillful in using a variety of dental-related software.
  • Good Fine Motor Skills: Orthodontic assistants work with brackets, bands, and wires inside a patient’s mouth. There is not a lot of room to manipulate sharp tools. It’s vital for an assistant to have the finger dexterity to perform precise, small movements while working on a patient’s mouth.
  • Efficiency in Using Hand Instruments: A variety of instruments are used by an orthodontic assistant. Assistants should understand how to safely use instruments, such as utility pillars, straight probes, and wire cutters.
  • Teamwork: Orthodontic assistants work closely with orthodontists to treat patients. The ability to work well as part of a team is a must. Teamwork skills include problems solving, decision making, and flexibility.

What is the Difference Between a Dental Hygienist, a Dental Assistant and an Orthodontist Assistant?

There are a few other careers in the dental field, such as a dental assistant and a dental hygienist, that are somewhat similar to an orthodontic assistant. But there are also key differences.

A dental hygienist primarily focuses on cleaning a patient’s teeth. An orthodontic assistant may also teach patients how to clean their teeth properly with braces. But they do not perform a thorough cleaning as hygienists do. Also, a dental hygienist works one on one with the patients. An orthodontic assistant often provides direct support to orthodontists.

When it comes to dental assistants and orthodontic assistants, their jobs are similar. The main difference between the two careers is the type of practice the assistant works in. Dental assistants may work in a general dentist practice or a specialist, such as an endodontist. Orthodontic assistants work specifically in an orthodontic practice.

How Much Does an Orthodontist Assistant Make a Year?

As of April 2018, according to PayScale, the average yearly salary for orthodontic assistants is about $32,000. Various factors affect yearly wages, such as geographic location. Certified Orthodontist Assistants (COA) on average earn about $39,000 per year.

As would be expected, those with the most experience tend to earn higher wages. For example, orthodontic assistants with ten to 20 years of experience earned $40,000 a year on average. Assistants that have additional skills, such as working as a supervisor or doing patient scheduling, may earn increased salary.

How Much Does an Orthodontist Assistant Make an Hour?

The hourly rate for orthodontic assistants is $17 according to PayScale. Those who have earned COA certification through the Dental Assisting National Board typically earn more. According to PayScale, the average hourly earning for certified orthodontic assistants is $19.11.

Experience and geographic location also affect hourly wages. For example, orthodontic assistants that work in San Diego tend to earn higher hourly wages than in other cities.

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