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How to Become a Dental Assistant in California

As of May 2013, California was home to 45,510 dental assistants, the most of any state in the nation. The Dental Board of California reports that in order to meet the rising demand for their services in the state, there is expected to be 52,200 dental assistants working in California by 2022. This represents an increase of nearly 7,000, or approximately 1,640 job openings for dental assistants in California each year.

The Dental Board of California has clear regulations for the practice of dental assisting in the state. Dental assistants in California fall within one of four professional categories:

  • Unlicensed dental assistant
  • Registered dental assistant
  • Dental sedation assistant permit holder
  • Orthodontic assistant permit holder

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Training Requirements for California Dental Assistants in Various Roles

Each of these four professional categories requires a different set of qualifications, all of which are best met by dental assistants who have completed a comprehensive dental assisting program accredited by the Commission on Dental Assisting (CODA). CODA-accredited programs are ubiquitous in California, as there are currently 24 programs throughout the State. A typical dental assisting program, which consists of both coursework and hands-on experiences in the clinical and administrative aspects of dental assisting, can be completed in less than a year.

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Training, registration, and permits for dental assistants also depend on the level at which they are working:

Unlicensed Dental Assistants

Unlicensed dental assistants in California are permitted to perform basic dental duties and responsibilities under the guidance of a licensed dentist. Dental assistant employers must ensure that these allied healthcare professionals hold Basic Life Support (BLA) certification and that they have completed an American Red Cross or American Heart Association-approved course in BLS, a Board-approved course in infection control, and a Board-approved course in the California Dental Practice Act within a year.

All Board-approved educational programs can be found here.

Registered Dental Assistant (RDA)

To become a registered dental assistant in California, individuals must meet one of the following requirements:

  • Be a graduate of an RDA educational program approved by the Board; OR
  • Have at least 15 months of dental assisting experience

All RDA candidates must also complete the following:

  • A state written exam in ethics and laws
  • An American Red Cross or American Heart Association-approved course in BLS
  • Courses in radiation safety and coronal polishing approved by the Board
  • Courses in the California Dental Practice Act and infection control approved by the Board

After all of the above requirements are met, dental assistants must apply for an RDA license through the Dental Board of California.

All Board-approved educational programs can be found here. All application forms and instructions can be found here.

Registered Dental Assistant in Extended Function (RDAEF)

RDAs must be license as a Registered Dental Assistant in Extended Functions (RDAEF) to perform a number of expanded duties. To become licensed as an RDAEF, RDAs must:

  • Complete a course in extended functions approved by the Board
  • Complete an application of pit and fissure sealants course approved by the Board
  • Pass state clinical and practical exam and a written examination approved by the Board

Upon meeting the above requirements, RDAs must apply for licensure as an RDAEF through the Dental Board of California.

All Board-approved educational programs can be found here. All application forms and instructions can be found here.

Dental Sedation Assistant Permit Holder

To hold a permit as a dental sedation assistant in California, candidates must be an RDA or an RDAEF and complete the following:

  • A dental sedation assistant course approved by the Board
  • A dental sedation duties written state examination
  • An American Red Cross or American Heart Association-approved course in BLS
  • At least 12 months of dental assisting experience
  • Courses in infection control and the California Dental Practice Act approved by the Board

Once the above requirements are met, candidates must apply for a Dental Sedation Assistant permit through the Dental Board of California.

All Board-approved educational programs can be found here. All application forms and instructions can be found here.

Orthodontic Assistant Permit Holder

To become an orthodontic assistant in California, dental assistants must hold a permit to do so. To qualify for an orthodontic assistant permit, candidates must be an RDA or an RDAEF and complete the following;

  • Courses in infection control and the California Dental Practice Act approved by the Board
  • At least one year of dental assisting experience
  • An orthodontic written exam
  • An orthodontic assistant course approved by the Board
  • An American Red Cross or American Heart Association-approved course in Basic Life Support

Once the above requirements are met, candidates must apply for an Orthodontic Assistant permit through the Dental Board of California.

All Board-approved educational programs can be found here. All application forms and instructions can be found here.

National Certification in Dental Assisting

Following the completion of a CODA-accredited dental assisting program, dental assistants may pursue national certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), which displays to employers and colleagues a level of commitment to the profession and to advancement in the field. DANB certification requires meeting eligibility requirements and taking two or more component examinations. DANB offers the following certification options for dental assistants:

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

The entry-level certification through DANB is the CDA, which is achieved through the completion of three component examinations. To qualify to take the CDA examinations, candidates must be a graduate of a CODA-accredited dental assisting program or have at least 3,500 hours of approved work experience in dental assisting.

All DANB credentials are renewed on an annual basis, and all require the completion of at least 30 continuing education credits in the following areas:

  • Clinical practice: at least 12 credits
  • Dental office management: at least 3 credits
  • DANB and other dental-related exams: at least 12 credits
  • Volunteer service or scholarly activity: at least 3 credits

Employment Opportunities for Dental Assistants in California

According to the State of California Employment Development Department, the largest employers of dental assistants, as of 2014, were:

  • Dentist offices: 27,065 employers in California
  • Physician offices: 63,218 employers in California
  • Outpatient care centers: 7,547 employers in California

The largest employer of dental assistants was dentist offices, which employed nearly 93 percent of all dental assistants.

Dental assistants may find a number of employment and networking opportunities through professional associations:

Restrictions for Dental Assistants in California

Dental assistants at any level are not permitted to perform the following:

  • Place, finish, or remove permanent restorations
  • Diagnose and plan treatment
  • Surgical or cutting procedures on hard or soft tissue (including removing teeth and cutting and suturing soft tissue)
  • Prescribe medication
  • Supragingival and subgingivival scaling
  • Fit and adjust correctional and prosthodontic appliances
  • Irrigate and medicate canals or fill root canals
  • Prophylaxis procedures

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