The dental assistant works under a dentist’s supervision to prepare equipment that will be used in dentistry procedures, to ready patients for these procedures, and to help the dentist during these procedures by passing instruments, holding the suction catheter in place, and generally anticipating the dentist’s needs. Some dental assistants are trained to perform more sophisticated functions such as removing sutures, processing x-rays and taking the oral impressions that are used to fit crowns.
Most dental offices require dental assistants to have a degree or certificate in dental assisting. Check out the programs below which offer free information:
Dental Assistant Job Responsibilities
Individual states vary greatly in their definitions of the dental assistant’s scope of practice. In general, however, the dental assistant’s primary responsibilities lie in three areas:
- Patient Care: The dental assistant is responsible for obtaining the patient chart and laying out the equipment that the dentist will use during the upcoming procedure; settling the patient in the treatment chair; and performing non-invasive procedures to prepare the patient for the upcoming procedure (for example: applying a topical anesthetic to the patient’s gums, or positioning a dental dam.) During a dental procedure, the dental assistant will wield the oral suction cannula and hand equipment to the dentist as needed. Dental assistants are also charged with teaching the basics of oral hygiene and instructing patients in follow-up care after the procedure is through.
While working with patients, dental assistants are required to wear protective gowns, latex gloves, face masks and goggles to safeguard themselves and their patients against infectious diseases.
- Office Duties: The dental assistant updates patient records as instructed by the dentist. He or she may also perform receptionist duties, fielding patient phone calls, scheduling patient appointments, and confirming upcoming appointments with patients. Some dental assistants also perform light bookkeeping activities and inventory control. These dental assistants may send invoices, receive payments and order supplies as needed.
- Laboratory Duties: In most states, dental assistants who work in laboratories must meet specific training requirements. These dental assistants prepare casts of the teeth from oral impressions, clean and polish removable bridges and dentures, and make temporary crowns. Additionally, some dental assistants double as radiology technicians, taking and processing x-rays of patients’ mouths.
Dental Assistant Training and Education Requirements
Individual states vary greatly in their education and training requirements for dental assistants. Most states have no requirements for entry into the profession beyond a high school diploma. Dental assistants are frequently trained to perform their duties by the dentist who employs them or by other staff working within the practice.
An increasing number of dental assistants, however, are choosing to enroll in programs given through community colleges, technical schools and the U.S. Armed Services. In 2009, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) listed 281 training programs for dental assistants. These programs take between six months and two years to complete, and include classroom hours as well as a clinical component.
Beyond entry level into the profession, most — but not all – states regulate the specific functions a dental assistant is allowed to perform, requiring a certain level of training and experience before the dental assistant will be allowed to perform certain tasks autonomously, particularly those having to do with radiological procedures.
The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) has prepared an excellent overview of allowable dental assisting functions by state which can be accessed here:
Dental Assistant Salary and Wages
Ninety-three percent of dental assistants work for private dental practices. The remainder work for the government or in physicians’ offices. Since dentists need to be able to accommodate their patients’ schedules, dental assistants may find themselves occasionally working evening hours and weekend shifts. In most cases, no pay differential is provided for working irregular hours.
Dental assistants’ earnings vary with their level of experience, qualifications (including certification), and the geographic area in which they work. In 2009, the hourly mean wage for dental assistants was $16.35 per hour, or $34,010 per year. Alaskan dental assistants earned the highest amount, with an hourly mean wage of $20.99.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Dental Assistant Certifications
The certifying body for the dental assistant profession is the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Thirty states either recognize this certification, or require it as a precondition to employment.
In order to take the DANB exam, candidates must either have graduated from an accredited dental assistant program, or have two years of full-time experience (four years of part-time experience) as a dental assistant. Additionally, candidates must be certified in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) by the American Red Cross. The cost of taking the exam is $300 – a $50 non-refundable application fee and a $250 exam fee. The exam itself takes four hours to complete, and consists of 320 questions.
In order to be maintain their certification, candidates must take a certain number of continuing education credits every year.
In addition to certification, DANB also offers Certificates of Competency in Radiation Health and Safety and Infection Control. The exams candidates take to earn these certificates are components of the dental assistant certification exam.
Dental Assistant Professional Organizations
Professional organizations for the dental assistant profession include the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), the American Dental Association (ADA), and the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), which maintains chapters at the state and local level as well.