A dental assistant is responsible for office and laboratory duties in a dentist's office. He or she also provides some patient care, but exactly what procedures one is allowed to perform, if any, varies by state. It may include applying sealants and fluoride to teeth, removing plaque and taking x-rays, or may be limited to getting a patient seated and keeping him or her comfortable.
Dental assistants held about over 303,000 jobs in 2012. They work under dentists' supervision and alongside dental hygienists.
Jobs are typically full time and sometimes include evening and weekend hours. There are some part time positions available.
While many dental assistants are trained on-the-job, some states require that those working in this occupation attend an accredited training program. These are usually offered by community colleges and last one year. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), part of the American Dental Association, accredits dental assistant programs. You can search for programs in the United States and Canada on their website. High school students interested in a future career as a dental assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, health and office practices.
Some states license or register dental assistants. Requirements usually include completing an accredited program and passing a written exam administered by the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB). Since the rules vary by state it is important to learn what they are in the one in which you want to work. DANB has that information, as well as links to individual state dental boards, on their website.
In addition to training and a license, a dental assistant needs certain soft skills, or personal qualities. He or she must be service oriented and reliable, should work well with others, and have good manual dexterity. Strong listening and speaking skills are necessary for communicating with dentists, hygienists and patients. One should also have good critical thinking skills, which will allow him or her to evaluate alternative solutions to problems.
Some dental assistants become office managers, dental-assisting instructors, or dental product sales representatives, but opportunities are limited for those without further education. Some dental assistants become dental hygienists after going back to school.
The job outlook for dental assistants is excellent. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, this occupation is projected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2022.
Dental assistants earned a median annual salary of $34,500 and median hourly wages of $16.59 in 2012.
Use the Salary Calculator at Salary.com to find out how much dental assistants currently earn in your city.
A Day in a Dental Assistant's Life:
These are some typical job duties taken from online ads for dental assistant positions found on Indeed.com.
- Prepare patients for oral examination and assist dentists and hygienists in providing treatment.
- Organize and maintain lab equipment.
- Schedule and follow up with patients.
- Properly take, develop and mount all radiographs.
- Prepare treatment rooms, instruments and tray setups for dental procedures.
- Record medical and dental histories and vital signs of patient.
- Provide oral hygiene instructions to the patient.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Dental Assistants, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm (visited February 21, 2014).
Employment and Training Administration, US Department of Labor, O*NET Online, Dental Assistants, on the Internet at http://online.onetcenter.org/link/details/31-9091.00 (visited February 21, 2014).