Dental assistants are qualified individuals who contribute significantly to the dental team. Dental assistants perform a variety of tasks, from patient care to office and laboratory duties.
The exact responsibilities of a specific dental assistant job will depend on the assistant’s background and credentials as well as state laws and the dentist for whom the assistant works.
Dental assistants can also advance to other careers, such as office manager, research associate, dental sales representative, educator, dental laboratory technologist, dental hygienist and dentist.
If you are interested in a career as a dental assistant, you should have:
- An interest in science
- An understanding of the human body
- The ability to communicate effectively
- Manual dexterity
- A desire for continual learning
- The ability to utilize problem-solving skills
- Concern for others
- A willingness to work as part of a team
Dental assistants perform a wide range of tasks, which may include:
- Assisting the dentist in all phases of treatment
- Sterilizing instruments
- Preparing treatment rooms
- Providing patient education and nutritional counseling
- Arranging and confirming appointments
- Preparing dental insurance claims
- Exposing, processing and mounting radiographs
- Performing a variety of intra-oral expanded functions
- Fabricating mouth guards
- Working as members of the dental team
- Performing laboratory procedures
- Selecting and transferring instruments to the dentist
- Placing temporary sedative restorations
- Placing and removing retraction cord
- Placing sealants
- Removing sutures
- Placing and removing periodontal and surgical dressings
- Taking impressions
- Fabricating and placing provisional restorations
- Removing arch wires and ligatures
- Taking and recording vital signs
- Assisting with medical emergency care by providing CPR, first aid and adjunctive services
- Placing sedative bases in a tooth prepared for a permanent restoration
- Placing permanent restorations
- Placing topical anesthetics
- Assisting with the administration of local anesthesia
- Assisting in monitoring nitrous oxide and oxygen sedation
- Applying fluoride
- Preparing teeth for bonding
- Collecting patient data
- Entering data utilizing computer programs
- Performing intra- and extra-oral examinations
- Performing coronal polish
Almost half of all dental assistants have a 35- to 40-hour work week, which may include work on Saturdays or evenings. Dental assistants work in a well-lighted, clean environment.
Dental assistants may work in a number of settings, including:
- Private dental offices
- Group practices
- Insurance companies
- Dental suppliers
- Dental manufacturing companies
- Armed services
- Educational institutions
- Public health facilities
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 workers may be at risk for exposure to bloodborne pathogens and infectious diseases so they wear gloves, masks, eyewear and protective clothing to protect themselves and their patients. Following safety procedures also minimizes the risks associated with the use of radiographic equipment.
Salary Range and Outlook
Most certified and registered or licensed dental assistants with an x-ray license make a minimum hourly wage of $18.00 to start. Salaries vary according to where you live and other factors including experience. Some employers offer uniform allowances, reimbursement for continuing education and professional dues, health benefits and pension plans.
The current job market for dental assistants is stable, and future projections indicate a continued high demand for assisting services. In addition to demand, there are other benefits to a career as a dental assistant, including:
- Opportunities for career advancement
- Gainful employment
- Good hourly wages
- Good working environment
- Flexible hours
- Working as a member of a health care delivery team
- Ability to help others
If you want to become a dental assistant, you will need to enroll in a post-high school program. You can find those programs at community colleges, vocational schools, technical institutes, universities or dental schools. Graduates of these programs usually receive certificates. Although the majority of academic dental assisting programs take nine to 11 months to complete, some schools offer accelerated training, part-time education programs or training via distance education.
These are some of the courses you may take in your program:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Communication skills
- Dental head and neck anatomy
- Intro to the dental profession
- Dental materials
- Dental specialties
- Medical emergencies
- Practice management
- Dental science
- Dental radiology
- Dental health education
- Clinical assisting
Once you have received your certificate, you can think about certification. To become certified, you will take an exam that evaluates your knowledge. Most dental assistants who choose to become nationally certified take the Dental Assisting National Board’s (DANB) Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination.
There are also educational opportunities available for dental assistants who wish to obtain a degree beyond the certificate level. Credits from dental assisting programs may also transfer into associate or baccalaureate degree programs.
Learn More About Being a Dental Assistant
- Watch a video profile about dental assistants (in the Health Science category).
- Read an interview with a dental assistant about his career and why he likes it.
- American Dental Assistants Association
- American Dental Association
- American Dental Education Association
- Dental Assisting National Board
- National Dental Association