Dental Assistants

There are about 300,000 dental assistants in the United States. Job-growth statistics indicate the occupation will grow by 36 percent in the upcoming decade, which is far faster than the average growth for all jobs.

Dental assistants perform a combination of administrative, laboratory, and patient care tasks. Dental equipment must be disinfected and laid out. Information must be gathered and added to patient records.
Assistants prep patients for dental work by situating them in the chair, answering questions, and teaching them to floss and brush correctly. Dental assistants suction patients’ mouths while the dentist is working, and hand the dentist tools, cotton, and other materials. Dental assistants position dental dams in order to separate a tooth for treatment. Some assistants develop x-rays or organize supplies needed for dental restorations or impressions. They remove sutures, place topical anesthetics on gums, and take out surplus filling cement. In some states, assistants are permitted to do coronal polishing as well as some restorative dentistry functions if they have been properly trained. Some dental assistants create casts from impressions, as well as temporary crowns. Others combine administrative responsibilities and call in patient reminders, document records, mail bills, accept payments, and order supplies.

The work environment is very clean and well-lit. Because they are in such close proximity to patients’ mouths, they must wear protective gear such as face masks, gloves, and aprons or jackets to protect against infectious illnesses. They must also obey safety regulations regarding x-ray machines. Only half of all dental assistants work full time. Some offices require evening and weekend hours. Many part-time assistants work in more than one dental office to ensure that they work a full workweek.

Dental assistants must be personable, reliable, and clean. Good manual dexterity and eye- hand coordination are required. This type of work includes few risks, which can easily be avoided by following established safety procedures.
Some dental assistants attend one-year community college programs or learn their trade through the armed forces. However, most states do not require formal training. Nonetheless, employers tend to favor those with some training or experience. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) has certified over 280 dental-assisting training programs, which include classroom instruction, laboratory experience, and training in dental-assisting skills. These programs result in either a diploma or a certificate. Some community or junior colleges offer a two-year associate’s degree program. In order to enter an associate’s program, a high school diploma is required, as well as science or computer classes on the secondary or postsecondary level. While there are also six-month programs offered by a limited number of vocational schools, the Commission on Dental Accreditation doesn’t recognize these programs with accreditation. Many dental assistants are solely trained on the job, learning terminology, instrument use, patient interaction, and so forth. Typically, total integration into the office requires several months of training. Dental assistants will require additional training as technology fine-tunes or creates new instruments, machines, and dental devices.

Most states regulate dental assistant tasks. Licensing or registration is required by some states for dental assistants to operate x-ray equipment or perform other advanced tasks. To obtain a license, candidates might be required to graduate from an accredited dental assisting program. They will also be given an exam that is written, performance based, or both. States that require registration or licensing generally include a requirement for continuing education to keep licenses active. There are a handful of states that permit dentists to delegate any tasks they feel the assistant can manage. Nearly 40 states require a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential, offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). In order to sit for the DANB certification examination, applicants must complete a CODA-accredited program or have two years of full-time experience working as a dental assistant; active certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation is also required. Recertification occurs annually, and requires that assistants attend continuing education classes or workshops. Some states have their own standards and tests, particularly for advanced techniques.

There is little opportunity for dental assistants to advance unless they have an associate’s degree at minimum. They may be able to step up to managerial positions, work as instructors, represent dental product companies, or work as claims processors for companies offering dental insurance. Returning to school to become a dental hygienist is also an option.

The median annual salary for dental assistants is around $33,000. Midrange earners receive between $27,000 and $39,000. Top earners receive more than $46,000 a year. In addition, many dental assistants receive health and dental insurance, and some are also given paid vacations after working for a length of time.