Dental Assistants - What they do and how to become one

A program that prepares individuals to provide patient care, take dental radiographs (x-ray photographs), prepare patients and equipment for dental procedures, and discharge office administrative functions under the supervision of dentists and dental hygienists. Includes instruction in medical record-keeping, general office duties, reception and patient intake, scheduling, equipment maintenance and sterilization, basic radiography, pre- and post-operative patient care and instruction, chairside assisting, taking tooth and mouth impressions, and supervised practice.2

 

Dental Assistant Salary, Schools & Job Description

A program that prepares individuals to provide patient care, take dental radiographs (x-ray photographs), prepare patients and equipment for dental procedures, and discharge office administrative functions under the supervision of dentists and dental hygienists. Includes instruction in medical record-keeping, general office duties, reception and patient intake, scheduling, equipment maintenance and sterilization, basic radiography, pre- and post-operative patient care and instruction, chairside assisting, taking tooth and mouth impressions, and supervised practice.

What Dental Assistants Do

Dental assistants have many tasks, including patient care, recordkeeping, and appointment scheduling. Their duties vary by state and by the dentists’ offices in which they work.

Duties

Dental assistants typically do the following:

  • Ensure that patients are comfortable in the dental chair
  • Prepare patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
  • Sterilize dental instruments
  • Hand instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Dry patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene
  • Process x rays and complete lab tasks, under the direction of a dentist
  • Keep records of dental treatments
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Work with patients on billing and payment

Dental assistants often spend much of their day working closely with patients and dentists. For example, dental assistants might take a patient’s medical history, blood pressure, and pulse before a procedure; explain what will be done; and talk to patients about oral care. They help dentists during a procedure by passing instruments and holding equipment such as suction hoses, matrix bands, and dental curing lights. Other tasks include preparing the treatment room and making sure that instruments and equipment are sterile. Dental assistants also may document the procedure that is done and schedule follow up appointments.

Some dental assistants are specially trained to take x rays of teeth and the surrounding areas. They place a protective apron over patients’ chest and lap, position the x-ray machine, place the x-ray sensor or film in patients’ mouths, and take the x rays. Afterward, dental assistants ensure that the images are clear.

Assistants who perform lab tasks, such as taking impressions of a patient’s teeth, work under the direction of a dentist. They may prepare materials for dental impressions or temporary crowns.

Each state regulates the scope of practice for dental assistants. Some states let dental assistants polish teeth to remove stains and plaque from the enamel or apply sealants, fluoride, or topical anesthetic.

Where Dental Assistants Work

Dental assistants held about 346,000 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of dental assistants were as follows:

Offices of dentists90%
Offices of physicians2
Government2

Dental assistants work under the supervision of dentists and work closely with dental hygienists in their day-to-day activities.

Dental assistants wear safety glasses, surgical masks, protective clothing, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. They also must follow safety procedures to minimize risks associated with x-ray machines.

 

How to Become a Dental Assistant

There are several possible paths to becoming a dental assistant. Some states require assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. In other states, there are no formal educational requirements, and dental assistants learn through on-the-job training.

Education

Some states require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. Most programs are offered by community colleges, although they also may be offered by vocational or technical schools.

Many dental assisting programs take about 1 year to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma. Programs that last 2 years are less common and lead to an associate’s degree. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), part of the American Dental Association, accredits about 250 dental assisting training programs.

Accredited programs include classroom and laboratory work. Students learn about teeth, gums, jaws, and other areas that dentists work on and the instruments that dentists use. These programs also include supervised practical experience.

High school students interested in a career as a dental assistant should take courses in anatomy, biology, and chemistry.

Education

Dental assistants who do not have formal education in dental assisting may learn their duties through on-the-job training. In the office, a dental hygienist, dentist, or experienced dental assistant teaches the new assistant dental terminology, the names of the instruments, how to complete daily tasks, how to interact with patients, and other activities necessary to help keep the dental office running smoothly.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

States typically do not require licenses for entry-level dental assistants. Some states require dental assistants to be licensed, registered, or certified for entry or advancement. For example, states may require assistants to meet specific licensing requirements in order to work in radiography (x ray), infection control, or other specialties. For specific requirements, contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.

States that allow assistants to perform expanded duties, such as coronal polishing, require that they be licensed, registered, or hold certifications from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). To earn certification from DANB, applicants must pass an exam. The educational requirements for DANB certification are that dental assistants must either have graduated from an accredited program or have a high school diploma and complete the required amount of work experience. Applicants also must have current certification in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).

Work Schedules

Most dental assistants work full time. Some work evenings or weekends.

Dental Assistant Salary

The median annual wage for dental assistants was $40,080 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,980, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $56,930.

Most dental assistants work full time. Some work evenings or weekends.1

 

Source

1.U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook

2. U.S. Department of Education

 

 

Four-Handed Dentistry

The median annual wage for dental assistants was $40,080 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,980, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $56,930.

The dental assistant is a key role inside nearly every dental office in the real world, essential to the concept of four-handed dentistry dominating dental practice offices everywhere.

When practicing four-handed dentistry, the dental assistant's two hands complement the dentist's two hands through every stage of every procedure. It’s like a ballet

Four-handed dentistry turns on repeatable, sustainable principles of positioning and seating, the use of a minimum number of ergonomically-designed pieces of equipment laid out in pre-set trays in their sequence of use, in order (left to right or top to bottom, depending on office preference), and all equipment, instruments, and materials prepared in advance and ready to go before the assistant seats the patient. (Most often prepared the night before.) Once the dentist begins the procedure, motion economy takes over, and the assistant anticipates and predicts the dentist’s every next move, passing him each instrument, piece of material, or piece of equipment he’ll need next, before the dentist asks for it.

The steps of each patient’s treatment is planned logically in advance, and likewise discussed with each patient in advance, before the treatment starts and as the procedure unfolds. The dentist and the assistant work in an interaction of trust and synchronicity. Every day in every procedure, the dentist and the assistant work together to establish and follow a safe, standardized, and predictable instrument transfer protocol. Inside the office, the dentist delegates to the qualified dental assistant any and all duties legally possible to delegate.

The practice of dentistry is rigorously physical, with an endless every-day stretch of repetitive micro-motions. The objective of motion economy is to minimize the number and magnitude of motions and conserve everybody’s energy while working.

For a really thorough instruction in the principles of four-handed dentistry, read this continuing education course posted by dental care materials manufacturers Crest and Oral-B.

The American Dental Association identifies 243 ADA-accredited training programs for dental assisting, located largely in regional community colleges and technical colleges. Many kinds of dental assisting training programs are available, but only these are accredited by the American Dental Association.

The same ADA search tool for predoctoral (DDS/DMD) dental education programs or residency programs can be used to search for allied dental education programs (programs in dental assisting).

There are two national professional associations for dental assistants, the nearly 100-year old American Dental Assistants Association https://www.adaausa.org/ (founded in 1921 by Juliette A. Southard, a dedicated young assistant working in New York City for dentist Dr. Henry Folwer), and the National Dental Assistants Association.

The Dental Assisting National Board is the nonprofit national certification board for the nation’s 37,000 currently certified dental assistants

The key job of the dental assistant is the practice of four-handed dentistry, helping to provide direct patient care in all dental specialties, whatever is the specialty practice employing the assistant

On the job the dental assistant can be expected take and develop dental x-rays; take impressions of patients' teeth for study casts (models of teeth); confirm the patient’s medical history and take blood pressure and pulse; greet the patient from the reception area and seat the patient; and make the patient feel comfortable before, during, and after the dental procedure. The assistant communicates post-op oral care instructions, and teaches appropriate oral hygiene strategies (tooth brushing, flossing, and nutritional counseling). Inside the office practice, the assistant participates in office management, and acts as the practice’s infection control officer, developing infection control protocols, and preparing and sterilizing instruments and equipment.

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Video Transcript
Dental assistants help make dentists more efficient, and patients more comfortable. They perform a blend of direct patient care and administrative duties. Dental assistants prepare the dental exam room, sterilizing and setting up equipment. During appointments, dental assistants may take x-rays, hand dentists instruments, keep patients’ mouths dry, and teach patients about proper oral hygiene. On the administrative side, they maintain patient records, schedule appointments, and work with patients on billing and payment. Essential skills for dental assistants include detail orientation, finger dexterity, listening, and organization. Almost all dental assistants work in dentists’ offices. They wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves, and follow safety procedures to protect themselves and patients. About one-third of dental assistants work part time. Some work evenings or weekends. Requirements to enter the field differ: some states require graduation from an accredited program, and licensure or certification. Other states have no formal educational requirements, and assistants learn their duties on-the-job.

For more information about becoming a dental assistant and for a list of accredited dental assistant programs, visit

American Dental Assistants Association

Commission on Dental Accreditation, American Dental Association

For more information about becoming a Certified Dental Assistant and for a list of state boards of dentistry, visit

Dental Assisting National Board, Inc.