What does a dental assistant do?What does a dental assistant do?

How to become a Dental Assistant

A dental assistant is a health professional that works with a dentist. Almost every dentist who performs intensive dental procedures or surgeries has a dental assistant. A general dentist who doesn't carry out surgeries may not have a dental assistant. A general dentist may be more inclined to have multiple dental hygienists to assist cleaning patient's teeth.

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How to become a Dental Assistant

There are two ways to become a dental assistant: through formal education or on-the-job experience. Today, most dentists prefer to hire a dental assistant who is trained and nationally certified. Some states (but not all) also require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited dental assistant program and pass a state exam. According to the Dental Assisting National Board’s (DANB) website over 39 states require or recognize these certifications. To search for your state's requirement go to DANB’s website.

Many colleges (especially community colleges), offer short certification programs that span four to six months, or an associate's degree in dental assisting that may include general education courses. Before enrolling at a college, make sure the American Dental Association accredits the college. In 2016, according to the Commission on Dental Accreditation’s website, there were 265 schools accredited dental assistant programs in the United States. All of these programs should include supervised hands on practical experience and bookwork.

Research and ensure that the program you are applying to is accredited before starting. Some schools list their credentials in addition to the previous years students completion and certification pass rate on the program’s website. If this information is not listed, an admissions advisor can disclose this information as well. High completion and pass rates are a good sign that you have selected a high quality school and are on the road to become a Dental Assistant.

Now, if you live in a state that does not require you to get certified or earn formal training, speak to a dental assistant or dentist to get an idea of what kind of knowledge that they would like you to have (if any) prior to applying for a position. Most dental offices that hire dental assistants with no formal education or experience will train on the job. You will gain knowledge and skills in dental terminology, instruments, patient communication, and additional tasks that are required in a dental office.

To take the exam and become nationally recognized by the DANB you must graduate from an accredited school or complete 2 years of full time work as a Dental Assistant. The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam is governed and administered by DANB. The exam consists of 3 sub-tests: General chair side, Radiation health and safety, and Infection control. The test is 4 hours long and consists of 320 questions. In 2016, the exam scale was 100-900 and examiners had to score a minimum of 400 to pass. In addition, there are also advanced or specialized exams that one can take to further their skills set.

Dental Assistants are eligible to sit for:

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

Job Description of a Dental Assistant

A dental assistant prepares a patient for surgeries, hands over tools and equipment to the dentist, operates and monitors equipment, informs patients of diagnoses and treatments, ensures patients are well attended to and cared for, and must perform administrative responsibilities.

A dental assistant may also conduct tests which are not very complicated and do not necessarily require the intervention of a dentist or dental surgeon. In small dental clinics, a dental assistant may be required to schedule appointments and assist the dentist in many tasks apart from the dental procedures, diagnoses, treatment, and patient care.

Most dental assistants work closely with dental hygienist and are supervised by the dentist. A dental assistant generally has a normal working week of forty hours. However, in 2014 according to the Bureau of Labor of Statistics 1 out of 3 only worked part time.

Starting as a Dental Assistant has its pros; it teaches you dental terminology, chair side etiquette, and dental office procedures - in addition to earning a paycheck. However, some individuals use Dental Assisting as a career stepping stone to transition into becoming a Dental Hygienist. Though both positions work in a dental office the vary and have different responsibilities. A dental hygienist has a larger role in contributing to the patient’s treatment rather than office administrative, preparation, and cleaning of equipment.

If you decide to transition to further your career, some schools offer bridge programs that take into consideration your Dental Assistant training and experience. This can also give you an edge over other candidates applying to a Dental Hygienist program. For more information talk to your guidance counselor or an admission representative.