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Dental assisting is a fun and growing field that can be the start of a terrific career in the dental field. Every dentist relies on the skill and professionalism of their DA to ensure that patients feel at ease, that the appointment schedule is maintained, and to take x-rays. Without a DA, a dentist would be at their wits end trying to cover all of these things on their own. In fact, some dental offices employ multiple assistants to cover the front desk as well as performing duties with the patients.

Dental assistants are in a unique position in that they are often the pivot person between patients, hygienists, and dentists. Thus, they need to have a flexible set of skills, excellent communication abilities, and a keen attention to detail. The information they gather from a patient could alter the course of their care when the DA recognizes an issue and reports it to the dentist.

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What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Dental assistants are a vital part of any dental practice. They are often a patient's first and last contact with their dental office for any visit. Dental assistants can be administrators who take appointments, remind patients of impending appointments, and send out reminders for regular cleanings. They might also help maintain patient records and assist with cleaning in the dental theater.

Essentially, dental assistants perform a variety of tasks that save their dentist many valuable steps during the day. A large part of that is concerned with patient care. For instance, they are largely responsible for welcoming a patient and setting them at ease. They may help patients become acclimated and oriented to the environment including providing the appropriate bib or protective gear for x-rays. As part of the intake protocol, dental assistants take patient medical histories, measure and record blood pressure, etc. As for more technical dental work, dental assistants take impressions of patients' teeth, prepare them for x-ray procedures, and also often take the images.

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Assistants also provide an educational function in that they teach patients about proper brushing techniques, how nutrition impacts their oral health, and the importance of flossing. They also provide instruction for post-surgery oral care. If a patient needs a follow-up appointment, a dental assistant helps them find the best spot on the schedule.

Where Do Dental Assistants Work?

Dental assistants work in a variety of environments. For the most part, they are found in dental offices where they assist with patient care, x-rays, and scheduling, among other tasks. Some may work in small offices for a single dentist. These small, intimate practices place a lot of responsibility on the assistant, who may be the only assistant in the office.

Dental assistants can also work in larger practices with multiple dentists. Depending on how those practices are organized they might work with just one dentist exclusively or they might pitch in as needed. These larger practices can offer more opportunities to specialize in a specific area or learn to do everything in an environment where there is plenty of support. Assistants can also work in dental clinics, orthodontic practices, pediatrics, periodontal offices, and a host of other dental specialty areas.

There are other job opportunities for dental assistants such as public health, insurance claims, teaching others, and as sales representatives for dental product companies.

Why Become a Dental Assistant?

There are many reasons to become a dental assistant. One of the chief reason is that there are plenty of opportunities to work in the field. Every dental office needs at least one assistant and its unlikely that the position will be automated any time soon. Dental assistants also enjoy regular hours which is something most healthcare opportunities lack. While emergencies may interrupt their time off, such occurrences are rare. Furthermore, most dental offices maintain regular business hours Monday through Friday. If, on the other hand, an office offers appointments on the weekends or at night, those hours are posted and the assistant can schedule accordingly.

The job also allows professionals to work in a field that offers plenty of diversity. Dental assistants only need to have excellent patient-care skills, administrative acumen, and technical know-how. They must also be able to communicate and coordinate with the dentist and the hygienist.

The profession also offers loads of skill-building opportunities for those who wish to advance into dentistry or healthcare. Many assistants work for a while in that position before returning to school to become a hygienist. Some even enroll in dental school and become dentists. In fact, dentists who start as dental assistants will have an intimate knowledge of their practice and be able to train their staff with greater efficacy.

Other growth opportunities arise in areas such as dental insurance, dental equipment sales, and public health education. Some assistants who have the required degree return to school as instructors and help new dental assistants learn and grow.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Associate Degree

An associate degree in dental assisting is perhaps the best way to kickstart a terrific career in dentistry. Most community colleges require that applicants have a high school diploma or an equivalency certificate. It's also important that students be motivated and focused on their courses and their long-term goals. In fact, some programs require that dental assistants maintain a certain GPA to continue in the program term-to-term.

Associate degrees are generally considered 2-year degrees because that's how long they take to complete if a student attends courses on a full-time basis. Generally speaking, an associate degree requires 60 credit hours, but some require 90. However, students can always take extra credits if they see fit. Since much of their time in school will be concerned with core curriculum and their dental assistant coursework, they might consider adding a few courses that they see as valuable.

Some required courses and content areas for a general associate degree include, but are not limited to:

  • English Composition and Rhetoric
  • College Algebra
  • Statistics
  • Calculus
  • Natural Science – Biology, Anatomy, Chemistry, Geology, Physics, etc.
  • Social Sciences – Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology
  • Humanities – History, Philosophy, Art History, Political Science, etc.
  • Physical Education
  • Languages – Spanish, French, German, Chinese, etc.
  • Medical Terminology

Students who are considering returning to school for a bachelor’s degree and to perhaps become dentists one day might consider laying a groundwork with their associate degree. Two courses that are fundamental to the sciences are physics and calculus. If these are offered at a community college, it’s a good idea to take them in preparation for things to come. At the least they will help form a groundwork for deeper science courses that come in a four-year, bachelor’s degree program.

Salary and Job Outlook

Dental assisting can provide a comfortable lifestyle and a lot of growth potential. Since dentistry is a field with a perpetual demand, dentists will always need someone to help their practices grow and flourish. While entry-level dental assistants might start their careers at the lower end of the pay scale, the BLS reports that the field has a median salary of $40,000. Given the potential for raises, bonuses, and benefits (including dental) DAs are on track to earn healthy wages. On the other hand, Payscale's average salary for the field is currently around $35,000, with a top end of $49,000. However, their numbers are based on the wages for an initial hire. Many DAs receive subsequent raises and bonuses that pad their accounts.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports good things for the future. They project that the field will grow by 7% through 2029. That translates into 23,000 new jobs waiting to be filled by qualified, degreed dental assistants.

For those who are interested in learning new skills and completing higher degrees, there is the option to become a dental hygienist. DHs typically have an associate degree and earn a median wage of $76,000. Their field is also projected to grow at a clip the BLS characterizes as faster than average. Dental assistants who move up into a hygienist position are sure to be all the more valuable to a dentist since they can train new DAs, while also performing those tasks when needed.

Educational and Training Requirements

A person can become a dental assistant with as little as a certificate from their local community college. There are also online schools that offer the necessary training. Other aspiring dental professionals find a school of dentistry that has a program for assistants and there are also educational opportunities to become a dental assistant at some universities. However, it’s important to find a program that has been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

While many dentists will want to hire an assistant with experience, that is not necessarily time spent in a dentist's office. Other valuable skills can be accrued in customer service positions, as a pharmacy tech, or even as a hospital volunteer.

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While a certificate program is often sufficient to find an entry-level position, many successful dental assistants pursue a full associate degree. This way they have a strong background that can include coursework in bookkeeping, management, and marketing which may prove useful and valuable to a dental practice. Furthermore, associate degrees include the core curriculum necessary to proceed into a full four-year bachelor’s program.

Necessary Skills

One of the most important skills for a dental assistant is the ability to communicate effectively. Assistants need to be able to work with nervous and fearful patients, the hygienist, and the dentist. Each requires their own level of communication, possibly requiring knowledge of other languages. Assistants should also have the ability to multi-task throughout the day. They might spend some time behind the front desk arranging appointments, filing medical records, or answering phones and spend the rest of the day taking x-rays, doing patient intake, and helping patients create dental molds.

Dental assistants can also help improve their resumes with skills in bookkeeping, information technology, and even marketing. Specific work in informatics may help keep any practice's digital records intact. All of these skills can be valuable because small dental practices often ask that employees be able to wear multiple hats in order to assure maximum success for the practice. Assistants who can switch gears like this are very desirable on the job market.

A quick list of skills for a dental assistant can include, but is not limited to:

  • Communication skills
  • Problem-Solving skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Adaptability
  • Technical skill with imaging equipment
  • Skilled at taking dental impressions

Dental Assistant Certification or Diploma

The academic requirements for admission to a Certificate program in Dental Assistant seldom include more than a high school diploma with a GPA at or above 2.0, though a GED often will suffice. However, some programs may require that students pass a background check, provide letters of recommendation, and even a set of fingerprints. These are required because they are part of what the state requires of healthcare workers and programs are seeking to ease students' movement into the workforce.

Once admitted, students will need to take the required courses, many of which are listed below. Those who are seeking a certificate don't need to bother with many traditional academic requirements. However, some programs do have prerequisites such as an introductory writing course and a course in medical terminology. Those who already have degrees or other college courses on their transcript may have already satisfied these requirements. It's important to note that students who only complete their DA certificate often don't have many college credits that can be applied to an associate or bachelor’s degree.

While in any certificate program, students should strive to maintain the absolute highest GPA they can. In fact, most programs will insist that students maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0 or better. Since some programs have tight limits on the number of students they admit, they are likely to have a low-tolerance policy with regards to one's GPA. Given the overwhelming popularity of healthcare-related degree programs, once a student is admitted they should strive to do their very best.

Common Coursework for a Certificate in Dental Assistant:

  • Clinical Procedures I, III, and III plus attendant Laboratory course
  • Infection Control
  • Medical Terminology (prerequisite)
  • Expanded Duties
  • Dental Radiology I, II, and III plus attendant Laboratory course
  • Dental Materials
  • Integrated Basic Science
  • Dental Office Procedures

Dental Assistant and Other Certification

Dental assistant certifications are provided by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Once aspiring dental assistants have passed their board examination they can proceed with confidence into the workforce. The National Board certifies professionals at many different levels. For instance, some dental assistants can specialize in anesthesiology, radiography, or take an exam to receive certification as an Expanded Function Dental Assistant (EFDA). Since state regulations prohibit assistants from practicing outside of the scope defined by their certificates, it's vital to pursue the academic coursework and subsequent national certification to practice in their desired areas.

In order to sit for the examination, the DANB requires that students need to have completed a course of study in a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CDA). The program should also be acceptable by the student's state Board of Dentistry. Programs that meet these requirements will be certain to cover the materials needed to prepare students for success on their DANB examinations. It should be noted that the DANB certificate is not a requirement to practice in every state. However, students who have passed their examination(s) will find that employers are more likely to call them for interviews, especially those who don't yet have experience in the field. Furthermore, since more than half of all states recognize and require DANB certification, any DA should be interested in clearing this professional hurdle.

Since each DANB certification is only valid for one year, DAs need to be recertified each year. Those who maintain their certification year after year gain the esteem of their colleagues; that's because DAs need to continue learning all year long. The DANB requires 12 continuing dental education (CDE) credits per year. Students can satisfy this requirement via online courses that proceed at each individual's pace.

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CDA Exam

The CDA examination is provided by the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB) and it is a comprehensive test that measures each candidate's knowledge and skill level. A passing score on the exam entitles the DA to practice in states that require such certification.

The examination consists of three main parts:

  • General Chairside Assisting (GC)
  • Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)
  • Infection Control

To take the examination, students need to pay $450 and meet the eligibility requirements. The quickest route to certification is to complete a certificate program from a CODA accredited local community or vocational college. Students should also be certified in CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-approved provider.

Having passed the CDA exam, DAs might consider other certificates such as:

  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)

Continuing Education

DANB requires that every DA recertify their credentials once a year. This is easily done by taking their online courses that can be completed according to one's personal schedule. Assistants can also take in-person courses or attend special seminars that are approved by DANB. Since not every dental-related event will qualify, be sure to confirm eligibility prior to attending.

Those who recertify year after year find that they not only remain engaged with their career but that they receive the esteem of colleagues. Their dentists may also recognize their diligence in the form of raises and bonuses. After all, every dentist wants to work the absolute best assistants possible. Assistants should also note that if their re-certification paperwork is submitted late, they may incur late fees.

Similar Careers

Dental Hygienist:
These professionals examine patients for oral disease as well as performing deep cleaning to remove all dental calculus or tartar.

Medical Assistant:
Works with medical doctors in a similar capacity as a dental assistant. Duties can include taking blood pressure, drawing blood samples, and record keeping.

Occupational Therapist Assistant:
These specialists work alongside occupational therapists to help patients regain their autonomy after surgery, injury, or to cope with any number of chronic conditions.

Pharmacy Technician:
In this position, you would work in a customer service capacity under a pharmacist. They frequently advise patients how to use medications and fill their prescriptions.

Physical Therapist Aide:
These medical professionals work under licensed physical therapists to assist while patients relearn their vital motor skills after incurring an injury, recovering from a disease, or rehabilitating from a surgery. Many PT aides are in training to become licensed physical therapists.

Surgical Technologists:
These medical professionals work in the surgical theater and assist the surgeon during delicate procedures.

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