A formal education in dental assisting is the first step to establishing a career in this allied health field. Dental assistant training programs are typically housed in vocational and technical schools, dental schools, and community colleges, and most result in a certificate diploma or associate’s degree.
Dental assisting programs may be designed and structured as part-time programs, accelerated programs, or even online programs, and often culminate in an externship at a general dental office, public health clinic, or dental specialist’s office.
What to Look for in a Dental Assisting Program
Comprehensive dental assisting programs prepare candidates to become a vital part of a dental care team, while also preparing them to sit for one of the DANB (Dental Assistant National Board) certification examinations.
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Therefore, a dental assisting program often includes the following course of study:
- A study of general dentistry and the role of the dental assistant
- Dental Operatory: Patients and Instrumentation
- Disease Transmission, Pathology, and Dental Emergencies
- Infection Control
- OSHA Regulation
- Pharmacology and Anesthesiology
- Dental terminology and anatomy
- The anatomy of the mouth and learning to identify the various parts of the mouth, neck, throat
- The oral cavity, the parts of the teeth, and the types of teeth
- The structure of the tooth
- The types of teeth, their functions, surfaces, and classification
- Preventive Dentistry and Nutrition
- The primary goals of preventive dentistry
- Dental plaque and its role in causing dental disease
- The use of fluorides
- The role of nutrition in preventative dentistry
- Cavity Classification and Charting
- Medical and dental history forms
- Medical conditions and their relation to dental treatment
- Vital signs (recording, taking them)
- Using and interpreting different charting symbols
- Identifying permanent and deciduous teeth through a number of methods
- Dental Law and Ethics
- Basics of dental jurisprudence and ethical behavior
- Principles of ethical decision making
- Ethical issues in dentistry
- HIPAA laws and noncompliance penalties
- Privacy, confidentiality, and security
- Dental specialties
- Pediatric Dentistry
- Prosthodontics/Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
- Communicating in the Dental Office
- Business Administration
- Practice Management Software
Career Advancement through Education
While enjoying a career in basic or general dental assisting, many dental assistants go on to pursue career advancement through education. For example, dental assistants who pursue additional training and take and pass a DANB certification examination may become expanded function dental assistants. Options for becoming an expanded function dental assistant include:
- Certified Dental Assistant (CDA): Earning the CDA credential allows dental assistants to perform more dental assisting functions, which may benefit their income and their career growth potential.
- Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA): Dental assistants who have earned the CPFDA are permitted to apply coral polish, sealants, topical fluoride, and topical anesthetic.
- Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA): In some states, like Oregon and Maryland, orthodontic assistants enjoy a separate professional title from dental assistants. Achieving the COA credential meets state requirements in those states.
Going back to school and achieving a college degree may also allow dental assistants to work in related fields. For example, a dental hygienist, unlike a dental assistant, must complete an associate’s degree in dental hygiene and be licensed in the state in which they work. Hygienists are then permitted to perform cleanings and other procedures. As such, the earning potential for dental hygienists is generally greater than that of dental assistants.
An associate or bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university in business, medical, or office administration may allow dental assistants to become an office manager in a dental office, while a bachelor’s degree in education may allow dental assistants to go on to teach courses within a dental assisting program. CODA-accredited dental assisting programs require their educators to hold DANB certification and a bachelor’s degree or higher.
CODA-Accredited Dental Assisting Programs
The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredits dental assisting programs in the U.S. Although the completion of a CODA-accredited program may not be necessary to find employment in the dental assisting profession, it is required to attain national certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), which is a requirement that many state boards of dentistry have in place. Individuals who have not completed a CODA-accredited program may qualify for DANB certification, provided they can show proof of the completion of at least two years of work as a full-time dental assistant.
Because there are more than 270 CODA-accredited programs in the United States, finding an accredited program does not typically present much of a challenge. A list of programs, by state, can be found here.