What is a Dental Assistant?

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According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the job market for dental assistants is “excellent” and expected to grow alongside the surging dental services market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reflects the ADA’s predictions, projecting that employment of dental assistants will grow 25 percent between 2012 and 2022 nationwide. This is due in large part to an aging baby boomer population in need of more complex dental procedures and new federal health legislation that is expected to expand the number of patients who have access to dental insurance.

What is a Dental Assistant: Job Duties and Responsibilities?

Dental assistants are the backbone to any successful dental practice. These dental professionals may have different duties and responsibilities within a dentist’s office based on the different regulations in place for different states. However, the core focus of their work is always on patient care, often preparing patients for examinations and procedures or working alongside the dentist when examining and treating patients.

Beyond the dentist’s chair, however, dental assistants are responsible for ensuring that the office runs efficiently and smoothly. As such, administrative duties are an integral part of most dental assistants’ jobs. Their work may include everything from scheduling and confirming appointments to greeting patients, updating patient records, and ordering dental supplies and materials.

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Some states permit dental assistants to perform more extensive duties, such as making impressions, exposing radiographs, and processing dental x-ray films. These medical professionals may also remove sutures, apply anesthetics, and position dental dams prior to treatment.

In fact, the duties of dental assistants can be said to be the most comprehensive among all those working in a dental office. As such, responsibilities of these allied health professionals also often include:

  • Taking dental radiographs
  • Applying sealant and fluoride
  • Taking and recording the patient’s medical history and vital signs
  • Preparing and sterilizing instruments and equipment
  • Preparing the examination room
  • Ensuring the comfort of patients both before, during and after dental treatment
  • Educating patients regarding post-surgery or post-treatment oral care
  • Educating patients on effective oral hygiene strategies
  • Managing patient traffic
  • Referring patients to other specialty dentists

Where do Dental Assistants Work?

Dental assistants may work in a number of settings, such as general dentist offices, pediatric dentist offices, dental schools, private and government clinics, and state and local public health departments.

Dental assistants may work in a small practice with just one or two dentists or in large group practices. They may also work for a specialty practice, such as:

  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery (facial deformities, removal of teeth)
  • Orthodontics/dentofacial orthopedics
  • Endodontics (root canal treatment)
  • Periodontics (treatment of gum problems)
  • Prosthodontics (replacement of teeth)

What’s Required to Become a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants more often than not receive their training through vocational schools, technical schools, dental schools, junior colleges, or colleges/universities. According to the ADA, dental assistant programs take between 9 and 11 months to complete, although some institutions offer accelerated programs, part-time programs, and distance education programs. Associate degree programs in dental assisting, where are nearly as common as certificate-level programs, generally last about two years.

National certification in this field is also commonplace, yet typically voluntary. The most recognized national certification in dental assisting in the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential offered through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

Those that want to qualify to take the CDA examination to become nationally certified typically first complete a dental assisting program accredited by the Commission of Dental Accreditation (CODA).

Individuals who have graduated from non-accredited dental assisting programs may be eligible to take the CDA exam if they have completed at least two years of full-time work experience as a dental assistant.

Other national credentials offered through DANB include:

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

Some states also require dental assistants to pass a DANB exam (or one or more of its components) for regulatory purposes. In addition, some states also require registration or licensure in addition to the completion of this national certification program. In some states, dental assistants are required to register with DANB to be permitted to perform specific tasks, while in other states there are no formal educational requirements to become a dental assistant.

Qualities and Traits of Dental Assistants

Dental assistants should always demonstrate professionalism and be committed to ethical conduct. It is also important that they work well as part of a team. These medical professionals respect patient confidentiality, respect provider confidentiality, and always obtain the dentist’s permission before making any decisions concerning patient care. Medical assistants are always expected to keep the supervising dentist informed and updated, and to ask questions as needed for clarification.

Dental assistants must also be well-organized, as it is likely that these dental professionals will be required to handle multiple responsibilities on any given day, from patient relations to clerical tasks. They must also possess superb attention to detail so as to accomplish tasks effectively and without error.

Finally, dental assistants must possess excellent communication skills and must be able to comfortably speak to patients about procedures, communicate with members of the office staff, and resolve issues when they arise.

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