Education and Training for Dental Assistants

dental assistant career

Becoming a Dental Assistant

Although there are certainly more than three types of jobs available in a dental office, most patients come into contact with three general types of health care givers: dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants. Many people confuse hygienists with assistants, even though the two jobs are vastly different.

Dental hygienists are licensed to perform clinical tasks, while dental assistants can be considered a sort of “right hand” to the dentist. Educational training for hygienists is longer than that for assistants, and most hygienists make a higher hourly wage.

A Day in the Life of a Dental Assistant

Depending on the particular office, dental assistants may be called upon to perform administrative tasks or direct patient care. Office work may include scheduling appointments, greeting patients, sending bills, maintaining patient records, and ordering dental supplies.

Patient care duties may include sterilizing and preparing instruments, getting patients ready for their upcoming procedures (including pulling charts), taking x-rays and processing the film, taking impressions of the teeth, building crowns or other dental prosthetics, supplying assistance to the dentist during procedures, and instructing patients on oral health care.

The extent of a dental assistant’s work also depends on state regulations and certification requirements.

As part of a clinical office, most dental assistants enjoy regular working hours (Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm) with holidays off. The hours and the office setting act as one of the greatest inducements for those seeking an entry-level health care career.

Dental Assistant Education Requirements

The majority of dental assistants get some sort of vocational training either through career colleges, trade schools, or community colleges. Although it is legal to have on-the-job training provide the necessary education for performing job duties, most employer prefer to hire those with a diploma or other degree.

This is due to the large vocabulary, patient interaction, ethics, and anatomy learned through formal training programs.

Most dental assistant programs take one year or less for full completion. These courses typically offer a certificate or diploma upon graduation. Two-year programs are available through most community colleges; they typically result in an Associate degree.

When choosing a school for dental assistant training, prospective students should always look to the Commission on Dental Accreditation (through the American Dental Association). This institution lists all the dental assisting training programs recognized for high quality in education and excellence.

Schools and programs not listed with the Commission on Dental Accreditation may offer shorter-term educational training (often four or six months in length), but the quality of these programs is not guaranteed.

Most educational programs accredited through the American Dental Association accept payment from federal funding sources (such as grants or student loans). Prospective students can also look to the American Dental Assistants Association for more information on scholarship opportunities.

 Dental Assistant Certification

Although most states allow dental assistants to work without formal licensing, the extent of the duties dental assistants can perform are limited by individual state regulations.

In addition, certification as a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) through the Dental Assisting National Board is highly recommended for employment (in fact, it is required in 30 of the 50 states). Candidates are eligible to sit for this exam after graduating from an accredited training program or completing two years of on-the-job training.

Job Outlook and Prospects

The vast majority of dental assistants work in private dental offices, although some jobs are available through government entities. Over the next ten years, the field is only expected to grow, and more and more dentists are turning to assistants to perform routine tasks, thereby freeing them up to take on more patients and complex procedures.

Although the job outlook for dental assistants is promising, it is considered a fairly low-paying field in terms of health care. Most starting out assistants make between $9 and $11 per hour. With experience and certification, this can increase, although few dental assistants ever surpass the $18 per hour mark.

As with many vocational training careers, advancement in the same field is difficult without further education. However, dental assistants can typically move on to office management, sales representatives, or even insurance company employees with enough experience.


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