Dental Assistants perform a variety of patient care, office, and laboratory duties. They often schedule and confirm appointments, receive patients, keep treatment records, send bills, receive payments, obtain dental records, and order dental supplies and materials. They also sterilize instruments and equipment, prepare tray setups for dental procedures, and instruct patients on postoperative and general oral health care.
Dental Assistants also work directly with the patients, making them as comfortable as possible in the dental chair and preparing them for treatment. They also work chairside alongside the dentist as s/he examines and treats patients. They hand instruments and materials to the dentist, and keep patients' mouths dry and clear by using suction or other devices.
Additional duties vary from state to state, depending on that state's Dental Practice Act, and depending upon how involved the dentist would like the assistant to be. Under the dentist's direction, some dental assistants prepare materials for making impressions and restorations, expose radiographs, and process dental x-ray film. They may even remove sutures, apply anesthetics, remove excess filling cement, and place dental dams on teeth to isolate them for treatment.
The Dental Assisting National Board provides extensive information on each state's Dental Practice Act, outlines what duties dental assistants are permitted to perform in each state and what exams and other requirements dental assistants are required to meet.
Some assistants who are given laboratory duties also make casts of the teeth and mouth from impressions taken by dentists, clean and polish removable appliances, and make temporary crowns. To learn more, watch the video profile of "Dental Assistants."
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Dental Assistant 14 May 2008 [pdf, 163 KB]
To meet a Dental Assistant, see the NIH "Lifeworks" website.
Dental assistants work in a well-lighted, clean environment. Their work area usually is near the dental chair so that they can arrange instruments, materials, and medication and hand them to the dentist when needed. Dental Assistants wear gloves, masks, eyewear, and protective clothing to protect themselves and their patients from infectious diseases. Following safety procedures also minimizes the risks associated with the use of radiographic equipment. Almost half of all dental assistants have a 35- to 40-hour workweek, which may include work on Saturdays or evenings.
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Most dental assistants learn their skills on the job, although some are trained in dental assisting programs offered by community and junior colleges, trade schools, technical institutes, or the Armed Forces. Search for schools that provide training for this career.
No matter how you learn the profession, once you have acquired the knowledge and mastered the skills, it is advisable to sit for the Certified Dental Assistant Exam, offered by the Dental Assisting National Board.
Since dental assistants serve as the dentist's "third hand," employers look for people who are reliable, work well with others, and have good manual dexterity. High school students interested in a career as a dental assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, health, and office practices.
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Last updated: March 9, 2014
©2012 American Dental Education Association