Education and Career Information for Dental Assisting
Going to see the dentist rarely involves seeing only the dentist. Today, oral healthcare is made possible by a variety of different professionals, each with a valuable and distinct role to play.
As more people become aware of the importance of maintaining a clean and healthy smile, dental assisting becomes increasingly important.
A dental assistant is:
- A hands-on position in the field of allied dental healthcare
- Someone trained to assist a dentist at the chairside of patients and perform other duties related to patient care and office administration within a dental practice
- Someone who can possess a variety of professional titles throughout a career depending on geographic location and level of certification
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: The Difference
Both work within dental practices under the supervision of a dentist, and may interact with many of the same patients, but the similarities don't go much further than that. So, what is the difference between the two positions? Here are a few key points to keep in mind:
- Dental assistants help patients to feel comfortable and work side by side with dentists, assisting primarily with corrective and restorative dental procedures. They provide support to dentists in the way of duties, such as using rinsing and suction tools, passing instruments, and ensuring that sanitary practices are maintained.
- Dental hygienists, on the other hand, work with patients directly, primarily providing preventive dental care in the form of cleaning, scaling, and polishing teeth, and probing the teeth and gums for any signs of disease that need to be checked out by a dentist.
- Dental hygienists generally have more seniority because they have more clinical knowledge.
Responsibilities of the Job
As a dental assistant, what you can do depends on the following factors:
- Your employer
- The state where you live and work
- Your level of training and experience
- The official certifications and designations that you have earned
The job titles and allowable duties can vary greatly from state to state. That's because each state has its own set of regulations, which must be followed by everyone working within a dental practice. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) provides links to specific information for each state.
Although a few states allow duties to be delegated to any dental assistant that a dentist deems to be competent, most states have created a hierarchy of job titles and allowable tasks based on a dental assistant's level of training and certification.
In general, the job's duties can be broken down into basic functions, expanded functions, and specialty functions.
Basic functions generally include:
- Sterilizing and disinfecting dental instruments and equipment
- Preparing dental instrument trays and laying out materials for treatment
- Preparing patients for dental procedures
- Recording patient medical histories and updating dental records
- Working alongside dentists during "four-handed" dental procedures
- Handing instruments and materials to dentists as needed or requested during procedures
- Keeping the mouths and throats of patients clear through the use of tools such as oral irrigators and suction hoses
- Instructing patients on pre-treatment, post-treatment, and general oral care
- Ordering supplies
- Scheduling and confirming patient appointments
- Maintaining treatment and dental practice records
- Taking and processing dental x-rays (with proper training and certification)
Expanded functions often include tasks such as:
- Making oral impressions
- Placing dental dams for isolating teeth during treatment
- Applying topical anesthetics to gums
- Applying sealants and cavity-preventive agents to teeth
- Removing excess cement as part of a restorative dentistry procedure
- Removing sutures
- Performing coronal polishing
- Fabricating mouth trays
- Removing and fabricating temporary crowns
- Preliminarily fitting crowns
- Polishing amalgam-filling restorations with a slow-speed device
- Performing teeth-whitening procedures
Specialty functions fall into areas such as:
- Laboratory duties—casting oral impressions, cleaning removable orthodontic appliances, and making crowns, dentures, bridges, and veneers
- Orthodontic tasks—removing cement from cemented brackets or bands, re-cementing loose orthodontic bands, and replacing ligatures and separators
- Pediatric dentistry—performing procedures on children
- Periodontics—assisting with procedures that involve the structures that surround and support the teeth
- Oral surgery—assisting with more invasive procedures
Most dental assistants are employed by private dental practices with one or more dentists. However, with training and experience come other opportunities, including the chance to work in different roles (such as office manager, instructor, or sales representative) and for different types of employers.
Dental assistants are commonly employed by:
- Solo or group practices
- Specialty practices—focus on a particular branch of dentistry such as oral surgery, pediatrics, orthodontics, periodontics, endodontics, or prosthodontics
- State and local public health departments—includes school and community clinics
- Dental school clinics—to assist students training to become dentists
- Hospital dental clinics—assisting with bedridden patients
- Insurance companies—processing dental insurance claims
- Post-secondary education institutions—teaching dental assisting to others
- Dental manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies—working as a sales representative for dental products
Here are a few of the positives associated with this job that you may not have even considered yet:
- Varied work—A large variety of duties means that few dental assistants would ever call their work boring. Many find their tasks both fun and challenging.
- Social interaction—It can be entertaining to meet new patients and different types of people.
- Abundant opportunities—Since there is high demand in this field, those with experience don't often have to worry about being out of a job.
- Flexible working options—The chance to work part-time is actually an advantage for many, especially those with families or other interests.
- Rewarding role—It can be incredibly rewarding to help people improve or maintain their oral health because it often has a large impact on their overall well-being.
Reflecting national estimates from 2015, yearly wages look like this: *
- Median wages (50th percentile) are $35,980.
- The top 10 percent earn $50,660 or more.
Common hourly wages in private dental practices vary widely from state to state, and can be as much as $25.00. This is due, in large part, to differences in the cost of living. Employee benefits like paid vacation and health insurance also vary from employer to employer, but are typically offered only to those who work full time.
As a dental assistant, you are likely to receive the best wages if you work in a specialty practice or have the education and certification to perform expanded functions within your state.
Job Outlook for the Next 10 Years
When it comes to this field, the outlook is bright. In fact, dental assisting is one of the quickest-growing occupations in America. Employment is expected to increase by 18 percent between 2014 and 2024.**
The career outlook will continue to be excellent for a variety of reasons. America's population continues to grow, older people are retaining their teeth longer, there is increasing focus on preventive dental care, and new dentists (who are replacing retiring ones) are more likely than their predecessors to hire dental assistants with an education.
What the Different Job Titles and Acronyms Mean
There is currently no national standard for dental assistant job titles, designations, and certification. Depending on where you live, some job titles include:
- Dental Auxiliary
- Qualified Dental Assistant
- Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)
- Registered Dental Assistant (RDA)
- Licensed Expanded Function Dental Auxiliary
- Expanded Duties Dental Assistant (EDDA)
- Expanded Functions Dental Assistant (EFDA)
Depending on the state where you work and the duties that you wish to perform, requirements for work may state that you need to:
- Take a state-mandated course in radiology and pass a written and/or practical exam before you can take x-rays.
- Take other state-mandated courses for different sets of expanded functions.
- Earn the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) designation by passing the national exam that is administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). One way to become eligible for this exam is to complete a dental assisting program that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
- Register with or obtain a license from your state, which sometimes involves an exam.
- Complete ongoing continuing education courses to maintain your certification.
Although each state has its own requirements and applies things differently, there is one designation that is recognized in a majority of states: Certified Dental Assistant (CDA).
Here are a few facts about the CDA designation:
- It is earned as a result of successfully passing the national CDA exam that is administered by DANB.
- The most common pathway to taking the CDA exam involves completion or expected completion of a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
- You must be certified in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) to qualify for the exam.
The CDA exam consists of three components. They are:
- General Chairside Assisting
- Radiation Health and Safety
- Infection Control
- CDA certification requires keeping your education up-to-date, renewing your CPR certification, and paying annual dues.
In some states, being a CDA qualifies you to take x-rays and perform other expanded duties. In other states that recognize the CDA designation, you must also pass one or more state exams before being allowed to perform expanded functions.
How to Become a CDA
The biggest part of determining how to become a CDA is to consider your training options. The most common route to becoming a CDA is to seek formal training through a dental assisting program and prepare to take the CDA exam. Depending on the specific program that you choose, some work experience may be required.
Benefits of Education
- Upon program completion, you will be eligible to take the CDA exam.
- Hands-on experience and quality training are a valuable asset to any employer.
- The opportunity for advancement is readily available if you want to pursue expanded functions in dental assisting.
- You can enter your career field confident in the knowledge and skills you have to offer.
Length of School
Programs tend to range in length, from as short as a few months to as long as one year. It is important to understand that, in terms of quality instruction, the longer programs generally offer the most comprehensive training.
When choosing a program, it's a good idea to aim for one that incorporates classroom instruction, laboratory instruction, preclinical instruction, and a hands-on externship in a real dental practice.
Many programs, such as those that are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), are typically designed to take about nine to 11 months to complete.
A high school diploma, or an equivalent, is likely the only prerequisite you will need to begin training. High school students interested in the profession may want to consider science and business classes.
Cost of Schooling
The cost of schooling varies greatly depending on where you live and the program you choose. Total costs typically range from about $1,000 to $8,000. Look into what that cost includes, since this price may include certification exam fees, uniforms, supplies, and more.
If you qualify, there are programs that can help you pay for school. The federal government offers several forms of financial aid (loans and grants), and many state governments also have programs designed to provide assistance to people who need to retrain for a new career.
In addition, a number of professional organizations offer dental assisting scholarships to members who qualify. A few of these include:
- The ADA Foundation (part of the American Dental Association)
- The American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA)
- The National Dental Association Foundation (NDAF)
- The Hispanic Dental Association (HDA)
What's Covered in a Training Program
Programs can vary significantly in their curricula.
The best programs typically include a combination of courses in theoretical dental knowledge, laboratory skills, and chairside skills. They also usually include at least one clinical externship (sometimes called an internship) for real-world practice and assessment.
Many offer classes in:
- Dental science
- Prevention and nutrition in dentistry
- Dental materials
- Dental office management
- Medical emergencies
- Infection control
- Chairside procedures
- Dental radiography
- DANB exam preparation and review
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, web site last accessed on April 7, 2016.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, web site last accessed on April 7, 2016.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), web site last accessed on November 30, 2016.
Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), web site last accessed on April 17, 2015.
Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), web site last accessed on March 31, 2014.
American Dental Association (ADA), web site last accessed on March 31, 2014.
American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), web site last accessed on May 26, 2015.