What’s It Like to Be a Dental Assistant?
Are you interested in being a dental assistant?
With the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting jobs for this position to grow 19% between 2016 and 2026, it can be a promising career path—one that can come with stability and opportunities for advancement.
Does this sound enticing to you? If so, read on to discover what the job is like and what it takes to become a dental assistant in today’s work environment.
What is a Dental Assistant?
Dental assistants dip their hands into many aspects of patient care. If you become a dental assistant, you’ll likely work with patients within a dental office. Plus, you’ll likely be responsible for handling lab duties and assisting dentists.
This job is best suited for people with good communication and interpersonal skills. They should also have a strong sense of organization and technical efficiency. In many ways, dental assistants are the glue that holds the practice together.
Job duties for this position may vary depending on state regulations. However, the general everyday responsibilities may include:
- Acquiring and recording patient medical histories
- Measuring and recording patient vital signs
- Assisting the dentist in various treatments and procedures
- Preparing equipment and instruments prior to a procedure, including sterilization
- Creating a comfortable atmosphere for patients prior, during, and post-treatment
- Filling patients in on instructions for oral care after a procedure or surgery
- Teaching patients’ proper oral hygiene care
- Taking impressions of patients’ teeth
- Executing daily office management tasks
- Scheduling appointments for patients
- Taking calls
- Handling office and patient billing
- Ordering supplies
- Assisting with direct patient care
- And more
This job description exposes dental assistants to nearly every aspect of the dental field. Its variety and versatility are great for individuals exploring the dental field as a career path. It’s also good for people who like diversity in their work routine.
Dental assistants can work either full-time or part-time, depending on the particular office’s needs. This can make it an excellent stepping stone for students working their way through dental school.
But what if you’re not looking to become a dentist? No problem! It can also be a good job for individuals who need a flexible work schedule.
This position includes a balance of human interaction and workplace challenges, which can keep the environment interesting.
It can also provide personal satisfaction for those looking for a career rooted in helping others. Like many healthcare positions, you often work with patients to improve their quality of life. This includes teaching them preventative dental health practices.
The median annual salary for this position in 2017 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics was $37,630. Many full-time dental assistants also find healthcare packages included as part of their job.
The Difference Between a Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist
Often, people confuse dental hygienists with dental assistants. But the positions require different levels of educational experience.
A dental hygienist’s role focuses on more advanced patient care duties. This includes cleaning and polishing patients’ teeth, taking and developing radiographs, and more. Because of this, a dental hygienist typically undergoes a more extensive degree-granting program that spans 3 years (completion time may vary according to the student).
A dental assistant program, in comparison, is typically shorter. While some states and employers require dental assistants to be licensed, others simply require completion of a dental assistant program.
Many dental hygienists begin their career as dental assistants since this position is often considered entry-level. This job can also expose you to office management and clinical and laboratory responsibilities.
Common Attributes and Qualities Sought in Dental Assistants
Because dental assistants work closely with people, juggle multiple important tasks, and assist with dental procedures, there are certain attributes that employers look for in candidates.
Reliability is an essential quality, along with attention to detail and a comfortable grasp on multi-tasking. Because a dental assistant interacts with the staff and patients alike, strong communication and interpersonal skills are also expected.
Candidates for dental assistants should have a positive demeanor and enjoy interacting with others. He or she will also be expected to have a good manual dexterity, as the tools used in dental practice require precision.
Due to the assisting nature of this job, candidates should be comfortable working closely with other staff members as a team. The hard skills for this position such as chairside assistance, office management, and dental practices, are typically taught through career training.
How to Become a Dental Assistant
Every state has its own regulations when it comes to qualifying as a dental assistant. Because of this, there are a few different programs for this career, including a diploma and degree.
There are even some states that do not require any academic training in order to become a dental assistant. However, salary for this position can reflect the amount of training the employee has under his or her belt.
The first step to becoming a dental assistant is to identify your state’s minimum requirements. To do this, you can visit the Dental Assisting National Board’s website to determine your state’s permitted dental assisting functions and requirements.
Afterward, you can find a career training program that fits those requirements. Depending on the program you choose, this educational process can take anywhere from 12 months to 2 years depending on the individual student. During this time, you’ll likely undergo training in both an academic and clinical setting.
Most programs cover a wide range of topics, including:
- History of dentistry
- Preventative dentistry
- Anatomy and physiology
- Office management
- Dental materials
Certain programs offer opportunities for an externship. Similar to an internship, an externship offers hands-on training under supervision in a dental assistant setting.
Through externships, you can develop experience and exposure in a wide range of responsibilities, from chairside assistance to pathology, radiology, pharmacology, and more.
Exploring a Dental Focus
Like most practices in healthcare, the dental field has several areas of concentration you can focus on. These are known as specialties. Some of the specialties in the dental field include:
- Pediatric Dentistry
- Dentofacial Orthodontics
- Maxillofacial Surgery
However, as a dental assistant, you don’t have to choose one single focus. You can specialize in many different ones. This will expand not just your knowledge, but also your opportunities.
Passing the RDA Certification Exam
Some states and employers may require dental assistants to achieve industry certification. One such certification examination is the Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) exam offered by American Medical Technologists (AMT).
There are three routes to RDA eligibility: 1) graduation from an accredited dental assistant program; 2) completion of a military dental assistant training program with one year of work experience; or 3) employment as a dental assistant for a minimum of three years with a recommendation from a current or former employer who is a dentist. In addition to the RDA’s eligibility requirements, your state may have specific requirements for dental assistants, so it’s a good idea to check for relevant state laws or regulations.
This comprehensive exam is composed of 210 questions spanning three primary categories and a number of sub-categories
I. Office Assisting Skills (14.3% of test)
- Office Procedures
- Patient Management and Communication
- Ethics and Professional Conduct
II. Dental Sciences (32.9% of test)
- Dental Anatomy and Terminology
- Patient Education
- Local Anesthesia
- Medical Emergencies
- Dental Materials
III. Clinical Procedures (29.0% of test)
- Instruments and Equipment
- Chairside Procedures
IV. Radiology (23.8% of test)
- Principles and Theory
- Techniques and Application: Exposure of Radiographs
- Radiograph Processing and Mounting
To attain RDA certification, candidates must achieve a score of 70% or better on the examination. Those who do not pass on the first attempt may retake the exam up to three more times, for a maximum of four attempts. Applicants must wait 45 days after the previous failed attempt and pay a re-testing fee.
Successful candidates who achieve the RDA designation will receive a certificate and card by mail. They can maintain RDA certification by paying an annual renewal fee, complying with Certification Continuation Program (CCP) requirements every three years, and abiding by the AMT Standards of Practice.
Opportunities for Advancement
While dental assistants have many opportunities for advancement, it often requires additional education. Yet the nice thing about this role is that it exposes you to many different facets of the dental field. Many find that being a dental assistant helps them solidify their ideal career path.
If you decide to advance beyond your role of dental assistant, you can take the additional training and education to pursue career paths like:
- Dental Hygienist
- Dental Laboratory Technician
- Office Manager
- Professional Dental Assisting Educator
The levels of education for these roles can vary. Yet the work experience you develop as a dental assistant while working your way up the career ladder can be beneficial in all of them.
Take the First Steps Toward This Career Path
Ready to take the first step toward becoming a dental assistant? Then it’s time to start considering the right program for you. For those in the Clearwater, Florida area, consider UMA’s Dental Assistant with Expanded Functions Program.
For a more in-depth look at life as a dental assistant, you can read about the job’s day-to-day duties here.