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How to Become a Dental Assistant

How to Become a Dental Assistant

A dental assistant helps the dental operator (dentist, orthodontist, or other dental professional) provide treatment to patients by completing a variety of tasks such as sterilizing equipment or operating a suction device to keep the mouth free of moisture during a dental procedure. The exact duties a dental assistant is allowed to do vary by state but typically include:

  • Preparing patients for treatment by obtaining medical information and seating them
  • Setting up the dentist’s work area by laying out materials and instruments
  • Passing instruments to the dentist during a dental procedure
  • Sterilizing and maintenance of dental equipment
  • Taking x-rays or doing lab work (supervised by a dentist)
  • Educating patients about dental care
  • Administrative tasks such as setting appointments, taking payments, or billing insurance companies
  • Maintaining patient records

In some states, dental assistants may do coronal polishing, sealant applications, fluoride applications, and topical anesthetic applications. However, state certification may be required to engage in these activities.

How Long it Takes To Become a Dental Assistant

Each state regulates the requirements for entering a career as a dental assistant, so the prerequisites for entry will vary. While some states don’t require a person to graduate from an accredited educational program, most do. You may also be required to pass a state exam to receive a license to work as a dental assistant.

Dental assistant educational programs can be completed at community colleges. Certificate and diploma programs take about 1 year to complete while 2 year programs lead to an associate’s degree. Although associate’s degrees are not as common, they can open the door to better employment opportunities. Typically a student will learn about instrumentation, anatomy of the mouth, and other information relevant to dental care. Dental assistants usually receive on-the-job training in addition to or instead of a formal education which may take a few weeks to several months to complete.

All educational programs must be approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) which is an arm of the American Dental Association. High school students interested in this field of work should take classes in biology, anatomy, and chemistry to prepare for entry.

In addition to education and training, some states require dental assistants to be certified. You will need to pass the CDA (Certified Dental Assistant) exam and be currently certified in CPR. Certain regulated tasks like coronal polishing may also require licensure. More information about education and certification can be obtained from your state’s board of dentistry.


Important Characteristics you’ll Need To Become a Dental Assistant

To be successful as a dental assistant, you must possess the following characteristics:

  • Interpersonal skills: The bulk of your job will entail handling patients. Sometimes patients will be in pain and/or stressed out. You will need to be calm, patient, and sensitive to their needs when interacting with them.
  • Detail oriented: In addition to understanding dental practices and procedures, you must be able to follow instructions and protocols to ensure patient safety.
  • Organizational skills: Part of the dental assistant’s job is to make sure the office runs smoothly. Being organized is essential to making sure everyone has the tools and information they need to do their jobs properly.
  • Problem solving skills: It isn’t unusual for things to go awry in a dentist’s office. You must be able to solve problems that arise in the office that fall under your purview.

Work Environment

Dental assistants typically work in dentists offices. They are usually supervised by a licensed dentist (or similar medical professional) and may work alongside a dental hygienist. Like other people in the medical profession, dental assistants are exposed to infectious diseases such as the common cold or flu. However, wearing protective clothing like safety glasses and surgical masks can reduce the risk of infection. Exposure to x-rays is also a risk in this profession, but one that can be minimized by following safety procedures.

Salary Of A Dental Assistant

As a dental assistant, you can expect to make an average of $33,470 per year. Your exact wage will depend on a number of factors including education, location, and employer. The bottom and top 10% of dental assistants made $22,680 and $47,090 respectively. Many people in this industry enjoy health insurance benefits and paid time off.

The majority of dental assistants work full-time hours. Some worked weekends and evenings. About 2 out of 5 work part-time hours.


Job Outlook

In 2010, about 297,200 dental assistants had jobs. The industry is expected to grow faster than average with job opportunities increasing 31% by 2020. This growth is driven partially by an aging population that needs dental care to help them keep or replace their original teeth. Research that connects oral health to general health is another factor driving job growth. People with education and certification will enjoy the best job opportunities in this field.