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About Dental Assistant Jobs

Are you interested in pursuing a career in dentistry and want to be an integral part of a dental care team? Then you should consider applying for one of the open dental assistant jobs on the market. 

Some people think that being a dental assistant involves working with patients directly. In fact, working for a dentist as their assistant, you’ll perform a variety of services ranging from greeting patients to directly helping dentists in their tasks.

So if you have good organizational skills and love working with people, this versatile and exciting job might be the one for you. Keep on reading to learn more about what it takes to become a dental assistant and what the duties actually involve. 

The responsibilities of a dental assistant encompass many different aspects and elements, making this a very challenging and dynamic career. Plus, it’s highly sought-after as demand for dental services constantly increases. Actually, the career outlook for this profession is growing faster than average, the BLS reports.

What Do Dental Assistants Do?

Dental assistants help dentists care for patients, complete exams and procedures, keep records, and handle appointments. They can have many other tasks as well, depending on where they work.

Duties

What are the job duties of a dental assistant? Typically a dentist assistant helps around the office providing assistance to the dentist in day-to-day operations. 

They can perform a variety of technical tasks as well, which can include the following:

  • Preparing the area for examinations and procedures
  • Sterilizing dental instruments
  • Assisting the dentist during procedures by handing over instruments or drying patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Cleaning up after procedures
  • Removing sutures
  • Processing X-rays and lab tests under the supervision of the dentist

Other dental assistant duties involve those of an administrative nature: 

  • Making sure that patients are comfortable and well-prepared for treatments and procedures
  • Asking patients about their medical history and other issues relevant to the procedure at hand
  • Providing instructions to patients about dental and oral hygiene (tooth brushing, flossing, diet, etc.)
  • Keeping records of dental treatments
  • Scheduling appointments with patients
  • Communicating with suppliers and making orders
  • Performing office management tasks
  • Handling billing and payments

The duties listed as part of the dental assistant job description vary according to the state where the dental assistant operates. Each state has different regulations over what responsibilities a dentist assistant can actually perform.

For instance, some states permit dental assistants to apply sealants and fluoride (procedures that protect the teeth from food and bacteria and prevent the formation of cavities). In others, dental assistants are also allowed to perform coronal polishing in order to remove stains or plaque or apply topical anesthetics as part of oral surgery prep.

Other dental assistant duties—such as taking and processing X-rays, carrying out lab tasks, and taking and pouring dental impressions—must be done under the direction and supervision of a dentist or dental hygienist. 

Work Environment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental assistants held approximately 346,000 jobs across the country in 2018. Just for comparison, there were 155,000 dentists in the US last year, meaning dental offices and practices usually employ more than one dental assistant.

Where can you work as a dental assistant? The majority of dental assistants work in dentist’s offices. In addition, 2% work in the offices of physicians, and another 2% are employed by the government. 

Dental assistants can also work in dental assistant schools or vocational colleges. 

Injuries and Illnesses

While it’s true that dental assistants work in clean, well-lit environments, they also work closely with patients, which puts them at risk of various bloodborne pathogens and communicable diseases, some of which, like AIDS and hepatitis B, could be life-threatening. 

Other health risks for those pursuing a dental assistant career include allergic reactions to the latex in surgical gloves, as well as to dental materials, oils, and chemicals. The prolonged use of anesthetic gases or the radiation from X-ray machines or lasers could also lead to health issues. 

It’s quite common for dental assistants to suffer from psychological issues too, such as work-related stress and burnout.  

Nevertheless, the most common cause of pain and discomfort among dental assistants is hand and neck pain due to improper body posture while working.  

For all these reasons, one of the requirements of a dental assistant job is wearing protective gear, such as safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves. Because dental assistants operate X-ray machines, they must take all the right precautionary measures to ensure maximum safety.  

Work Schedules

Most dental assistants work full-time Monday to Friday. However, it isn’t unusual for some to work on weekends or in the evening in order to accommodate patients. 

Dental assistants in clinics and private surgeries have set office hours, while those working in hospitals have more flexible working options. 

And if these aren’t what you want in a part-time dental assistant job, several hospitals and clinics also have openings, which can provide even more flexibility in terms of work schedules.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

There are several ways to become a dental assistant, depending on the regulations in the state where you work. Some states require the completion of certain accredited dental assistant programs. Meanwhile, others don’t include formal education as part of their dental assistant requirements but provide on-the-job dental assistant training. 

Important Qualities

The following qualities are required for a successful career as a dental assistant:

  • Good organizational skills are needed to maintain records of appointments, dental procedures, and follow-up treatments.
  • Being detail-oriented makes it possible to follow strict infection control procedures. 
  • Dental assistants work in tight areas and use precise equipment and tools, so they must be good at working with their hands.
  • They need to have excellent interpersonal and communication skills. Being good at a dental assistant job means being kind and friendly. A dentist assistant should properly greet patients and make them feel comfortable and at ease. 
  • Being tactful and empathetic are also important characteristics. These are especially valuable when dealing with patients who experience fear and anxiety when visiting the dentist.
  • A dental assistant works very closely with dental hygienists and dentists, so being able to work as part of a team is crucial. Dental assistants should also be prepared to follow instructions and directions. 

Education 

What qualifications do you need to become a dental assistant? The academic qualifications required to work as a dental assistant vary considerably from one state to the next. Sometimes there can even be different directives in terms of training and certification within a single state. For instance, in California, there are four dental assistant categories, each with different regulations and task requirements.

Many states only require potential job applicants to have a high school diploma and some on-the-job training. Most states, however, require those who choose to go down the dental assistant career path to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. 

Dental assistant programs are usually offered by community colleges, as well as vocational and technical schools. These programs typically take one or two years to complete. The one-year programs are more common and provide graduates with a certificate or a diploma. Two-year dental assistant programs lead to an associate’s degree.

Dental assistant programs cover classroom and lab work. Courses are included in orofacial anatomy, radiology, infection control, dental pharmacology, and dental materials, as well as other sectors essential to dental assistant careers, such as dental office administration and dental health education. Associate’s degree programs basically cover the same courses but offer a more comprehensive, in-depth education. 

A dental assistant school also provides practical experience in real-world conditions. If students wish to focus on a specialized area of dentistry, for example, pediatric or orthodontic care, they can take on an externship in those specific areas during the program. 

To date, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) has 270 accredited dental assistant programs.

Training

Before officially becoming a dental assistant and starting the job application process, all candidates must complete on-the-job training. Even dental assistants who’ve graduated from an accredited program must go through training. This includes both general training, such as learning dental terminology, as well as training specific to the office where the assistant will be working. The training is provided by a dentist, a dental hygienist, or a dental assistant who has already completed the educational process.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Although most states don’t require holders of dental assistant jobs to obtain a license, some do. For instance, some states demand that dental assistants who work in radiology or infection control or as a pediatric dentist assistant meet specific licensing requirements. To find out more about the specific conditions, contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.

Nevertheless, in most states, high school graduates can qualify to work as dental assistants without acquiring a formal license or graduating from a dental assisting school.

How do you become a certified dental assistant? In order to obtain a license, students are generally required to pass an exam administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

To qualify for the exam, candidates must first qualify to work as dental assistants (usually by finishing an accredited program or graduating high school and completing training). The DANB’s Certified Dental Assistant examination comprises 320 questions covering the following components:

  • General chairside assisting 
  • Radiation health and safety 
  • Infection control 

In some US states, to pass the exam and obtain the license required to apply for new dental assistant job openings, candidates must score at least 400 points. If students fail the exam once, they can take it again, although some states require candidates to do additional coursework before taking the exam for the second time. 

Obtaining certificates to work as a dental assistant is optional. The DANB offers several voluntary credentials for those interested in advancing their career:

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

Advancement 

Even though dental assistant jobs pay well, for many they’re a stepping stone to bigger and better things. With further education, dental assistants can specialize in certain areas, such as orthodontics, geriatric dentistry, or pediatric dentistry. They might also find work in educational settings as trainers in a dental assisting school, or they could become office managers. 

Dental assistants who’ve obtained an associate’s degree can continue their education and training and complete a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. 

As a dental assistant, your career could also include working in insurance as a claims processor or getting into the profitable business of sales. Many dental assistants are employed as sales representatives at dental product companies. 

Pay

The BLS reports that the median annual wage for dental assistants was $38,660 in May 2018.  The lowest 10% earned less than $26,940, and the highest 10% made more than $54,800 in 2018. Dental assistants make an average of $18.59 per hour.

Government-employed dental assistants were paid the most: $42,390. The average dental assistant salary in dental offices was $38,670, while physician’s offices paid the lowest wages, at $35,760 per year.

According to the BLS, Minnesota offers the highest salaries to dental assistants—around $49,880. With the exception of Puerto Rico, Utah is the lowest-paying state in the US with a $31,280 annual salary, closely followed by West Virginia with a $31,410 mean annual wage. 

The highest-paying region for dental assistants is Santa Rosa in California, where the average annual dental assistant job salary was around $53,190. A close second with $52,060 in yearly salaries is the Minneapolis–St. Paul–Bloomington metropolitan area.

Job Outlook

The projected growth for dental assistants in the US is 11% from 2018 to 2028. This growth rate is much faster than the 5% increase expected for all other occupations. 

The number of dental assistants is expected to reach 384,700 by 2028. 

Job Prospects 

A career as a dental assistant has excellent prospects, data from the BLS shows. The estimated dental assistant job growth is mostly due to the rising number of seniors among the population. Today, more and more baby boomers keep their original teeth and thus require higher-quality dental care, particularly in terms of maintenance and treatment. 

Moreover, awareness of the importance of oral health, and its connection to general wellness overall, has increased significantly, and as a result, so too has the demand for preventive dental services.

Lastly, dental assistants are an indispensable part of the dental office, which also contributes to the high dental assistant career outlook. Dental assistants allow the dentist to operate more efficiently, which means that dental offices will continue to employ more dental assistants in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist?

The biggest difference is that dental assistants carry out minor, supervised work on patients and are more focused on the administrative aspects, while dental hygienists do more one-on-one work with patients. Another difference is education. Dental hygienists must have at least an associate’s degree and a state license. Both careers, though, have a positive job outlook.

How long does it take to become a dentist assistant?

It takes around two years to become certified. However, the length of time varies from state to state. In states where licenses aren’t required, high school or GED graduates can start working immediately and get on-the-job training. If state regulation requires dental assistants to be licensed, certification may take anywhere from nine months to two years. 

What are some of the benefits of working as a dental assistant?

A dental assistant career is a great option for people who like working with their hands, love helping people, and have good organizational skills. One of the great things about this line of work is that formal qualifications aren’t always required, so candidates don’t have to go through years of education. What’s more, the pay is very good, and the job outlook is quite high—not to mention the flexible work hours and the personal satisfaction dental assistants derive from helping patients.

What is the highest-paid dental assistant job?

Dental assistants can earn as much as $54,800 a year. Of course, when working for a dentist, what an assistant can earn depends on the employer and even more on the location. Annual salaries for dental assistants vary according to state and region.

Which state employs the most dental assistants?

With 53,110 dental assistants employed in 2018, California leads the list of states with the greatest number of dental assistants. It’s followed by Texas with 30,290 and Florida with 19,180 employed dental assistants.

Do you make good money as a dental assistant?

The salary for dental assistants ranges between $26,940 and $54,800 depending on the location and position. It’s estimated that dental assistants earn a similar, or even slightly higher, salary compared to other healthcare professionals who have similar qualifications, such as medical assistants, veterinary technicians, therapy assistants, and pharmacy assistants. 

The good news is that there are ways to increase your salary. Obtaining extra credentials or taking on more responsibilities can help you work your way up the pay scale. Also, the number of dental assistant jobs is expected to increase in the next 10 years, so there are more opportunities for advancement and salary increases.