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How to Become a Dental Assistant in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Dental assistants are trained professionals who help keep dental offices functioning by performing a wide variety of administrative and clinical duties. They serve as receptionists, clerks, administrators, and clinical assistants, helping with tasks such as sterilizing instruments, providing dental hygiene advice, or x-raying patients.

Dental assistants are always in demand, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of positions open for dental assistants will grow by 7% between 2019 and 2029, faster than the rate of growth of other positions in the wider economy.

Dental assistants are not fully qualified dentists, but they do perform some dental work on patients, under the supervision of a dentist. This means they need to complete a certification program and build up some experience performing dental procedures before they can become certified.

It’s usually possible to enroll in a dental assistant program if you have a high school diploma. The length of time it takes to complete dental assistant school depends on the licensing requirements in the state in which you’re studying. Some states have exacting certification requirements that include significant academic study, while others demand a certain amount of work experience, and therefore encourage assistants to become qualified through vocational training at a dental practice.

Understanding the role of a dental assistant

A dental assistant is someone who works with a dentist, performing both technical skills and customer service skills. For example, they may work in the front office, scheduling appointments, answering questions, and counseling patients on dental hygiene and aftercare. They may also work alongside the dentist to support treatments.

A dental assistant may be responsible for cleaning the work area, sterilizing tools, handing over tools that a dentist requires during treatments, and acting as an extra pair of hands during complex treatments.

The scope of practice of a dental assistant can vary between states, but in states that have relatively permissive regulations, a dental assistant can perform simple procedures such as fitting a temporary crown, taking impressions of a patient’s teeth, or processing an x-ray.

What are the skills of a dental assistant?

Dental assistants need both soft skills and clinical skills. If you want to have a successful dental assisting career you will need to be good at working with people, have strong organizational skills and administrative skills, and have the attention to detail and clinical knowledge required to assist with dental procedures.

Many dental assistants find they enjoy the work they do, and that as they gain confidence in their clinical skills they decide they’d like to pursue an advanced degree and become a dental hygienist, or even a fully qualified dentist.

A dental assistant is expected to have an understanding off:

  • Office administration
  • Customer service and communication
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Biology
  • Inorganic chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Virology
  • Dental materials
  • Radiography
  • Hygiene

It usually takes a year to complete a dental assisting certificate, or two years to complete an associate’s degree.

Where do dental assistants work?

Most dental assistants work in clinics and dental offices, but some may work in hospitals that have dental services attached to them. Dentists are in demand all over the country, which means dental assistants have the opportunity to work anywhere they like, whether that’s in their home town, doing outreach work at clinics in remote villages, or working in a big city.

It’s easy for dental assistants to relocate (although certification requirements can vary between states), so these health care assistants enjoy a lot of flexibility when it comes to where they work.

What do dental assistants do?

Dental assistants have the chance to get involved with almost every aspect of running a dental practice, from scheduling appointments and serving as the office manager, doing paperwork, greeting patients, and providing basic counseling on dental hygiene and aftercare, to getting hands-on with patients.

A dental assistant can’t provide a full check-up, but they can help dentists by sterilizing tools, keeping the treatment area clean, taking impressions of teeth, and in some states doing basic tasks such as fitting a temporary crown or assisting with “two-handed dentistry” by providing suction or manipulating tools during difficult, detail-focused procedures.

Dental assisting is a good way to learn about the field of dentistry and get an idea of whether the profession is something that appeals to you. Working as a dental assistant gives you a chance to work with a dentist who is fully qualified, learn about dental surgery by working hands-on, and get truly rounded experience, all while earning a respectable salary as a healthcare assistant.

Training needed to become a dental assistant

The rules surrounding becoming a dental assistant vary from state to state. However, the most common route into becoming a dental assistant is to pass the Dental Assisting National Board’s Certified Dental Assistant examination. Many community colleges, technical schools, and universities run dental assisting programs that train people with this examination in mind.

What kind of training is required to become a dental assistant?

To sit the Certified Dental Assistant Examination (CDA) a would-be dental assistant must complete a dental assisting program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. This body accredits education programs for dental assistants, and has currently granted accreditation to around 270 programs across the United States.

It’s possible to take the examination as a graduate from a non-accredited program, or as someone who has received on-the-job training if you have two years of full-time, supervised work experience as a dental assistant.

The CDA examination is a multi-part examination that covers 320 questions, and some states will accept passes of specific modules as a part of their licensing process. For example, a prospective dental assistant could pass the infection control or radiation health and safety elements of the examination and be permitted to work in those capacities, albeit without full licensure.

The CDA is just the first of many examinations that a dental assistant can take. Many dental assistants also sit the National Entry Level Dental Assistant examination offered by the DANB and also work towards examinations for specialist areas such as restorative dentistry or preventive functions.

Dental assistants are expected to have a CPR certification from an approved provider such as the American Red Cross, American Heart Association, or the National Safety Council.

Where can you get the training required to be a dental assistant?

Most would-be dental assistants get their training at a community college or a vocational school, depending on whether they’re aiming for a certificate, diploma, or two-year degree program.

Hands-on experience is important, and it’s a good idea to look for an institution that has on-site labs or the opportunity to undertake an externship with a local dental office.

Some good options for associate degrees in dental assisting include:

How long does the training to be a dental assistant usually take?

Most certificates and diplomas take between nine months and one year, although fast-track programs can sometimes be completed more quickly, especially if the learner already has some experience in a different healthcare-related role. Associate’s degrees usually take two years to complete.

If you don’t want to go the traditional academic route, you have the option of completing work experience in a position approved by the DANB. To earn certification in this way, you’ll have to have a licensed dentist sign off on your work experience, and you’ll need at least 3,500 hours of qualifying work experience to be allowed to take the CDA examination.

Even those who have completed an accredited course of study in dental assisting are advised to complete an externship. This externship is not mandatory, but it is something that will make a would-be dental assistant more appealing to many employers.

Aspiring dental assistants who want to progress beyond entry-level jobs in the profession may wish to pursue additional certifications. The DNAB offers several certifications beyond the basic CDA qualification, and while the additional certifications are not mandatory, they do help assistants unlock more work options and make them more capable of supporting dentists and hygienists in day-to-day work.

It usually takes six to eight weeks to arrange the CDA examination, sit it and get the certification results back. The examination features 320 questions, worth 900 points in total, and a passing score is 400 points. The examination costs around $450. Most dental assisting programs will publish the pass/fail statistics for their graduates, giving aspiring dental assistants an idea of how their courses will prepare them for the examination.

Dental assistant certification programs

The Dental Assisting National Board is a nationally recognized body that issues certifications for dental assistants. If you want to study a dental assisting program, you should look for one that prepares you for a DANB certification.

How do you get certified as a dental assistant?

The main certification for dental assistants is the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) qualification. This certification prepares dental assistants to work in a dental practice and is the core qualification that dental assistants should be aiming for as part of an accredited program.

The CDA certification includes three core components:

  • General chairside assisting
  • Radiation health and safety
  • Infection control

It’s possible to sit some components individually, and some states will accept those components as a part of their own licensure requirements.

The National Entry Level Dental Assistant Examination is another popular certification pursued by dental assistants who are just starting their careers. This certification also includes three examinations:

  • Anatomy, morphology, and physiology
  • Infection control
  • Radiation health and safety

After passing these examinations, a dental assistant may wish to pursue more specialist certifications, depending on the areas of dentistry they are most interested in.

The DANB provides a detailed list of eligibility criteria for aspiring dental assistants, including the content they should have learned before they sit the examination, requirements for other certifications such as CPR, prior education requirements, and the need for work experience, depending on the entry pathway the applicant is following.

Individual states can have other, additional requirements that a dental assistant must meet before they’re allowed to engage in dental procedures. There may also be limits on the scope of practice of a certified dental assistant, or rules that state an assistant must be supervised by a hygienist or a dentist.

If you are planning on moving from one state to another, it’s a good idea to check the licensing and practice requirements in each state so that you know whether you’ll need to re-apply for certification. You may be able to transfer your license, but it’s important to understand the limitations on job functions, and even job titles, in each part of the country.

What are dental assistant certification programs like?

Dental assistant certification programs vary depending on the institution, and the way the course is delivered. Most dental assistant programs are delivered on campus and use a combination of classroom learning and hands-on sessions.

Practical experience is very important for dental assistants, because of the nature of the work they’ll be doing. Some online universities offer dental assisting courses that are primarily delivered asynchronously and online, but these courses still require an externship so that the would-be assistant can earn the practical experience they need as a part of their course.

The academic standards required for a dental assisting program can be challenging for some students. While it’s true that the overall level of qualification required for a registered dental assistant is lower than that of a dentist or even a hygienist, the material covered in the associate degree includes dental radiology, infection control, anatomy and physiology, and a number of administrative skills.

Dental assistants have a diverse but important skillset, and they’ll be tested on a variety of subjects as a part of their certification process.

Most certification programs take between nine months and one year to complete, with an associate’s degree taking about two years. There are some accelerated programs that claim to help someone qualify to work as a dental assistant in just four to eight months. If you’re considering trying one of these programs, make sure it’s accredited first, because if the course does not meet the accreditation criteria, you’ll still need to complete thousands of hours of practical work experience before you can take the CDA examination.

Many accelerated programs are aimed at people who already have a lot of the skills they need to work as an assistant, such as laboratory technicians who need to refine their knowledge of anatomy and physiology, or vocationally trained assistants who just want some academic training to augment their knowledge.

Whatever program you choose, you’ll spend a lot of time learning about pharmacology, safety, radiology, anatomy, dental terminology, and other related skills. You’ll have the chance to split your time between lectures (online or in a classroom) and practical training in a lab or via an externship.

Most programs are taught by experienced dentists or dental assistants who have a lot of chairside experience. In some institutions the people who teach dental assisting courses still work as a dentist at least part-time, so they can keep their skills current. In fact, teaching could be a part of their own continuing personal development / continuing education credits.

Where can you register for a dental assistant certification program?

If you’d like to become a dental assistant, you should sign up for a program at a local career institute, college or technical school There are 270 ADA accredited programs in the United States, so it should be relatively easy to find one in your local area. The ADA provides a full list of accredited programs on its website.

A dental assistant certificate or diploma will prepare you to do hands-on work in a dental office. Many people opt to pursue the diploma first of all, then progress to an associate degree if they decide they enjoy the work. Dental assisting degrees provide a strong foundation for people who may be interested in working as a hygienist or a dentist at a later date, and it’s relatively easy to ‘top up’ the associate degree to a full four-year degree if desired.

Careers as a dental assistant

As a part of preparing for your CDA examination, you’ll most likely undertake an externship where you’ll get the chance to practice your chairside assisting skills and get experience in radiology, dental pharmacology, oral hygiene, and other areas of dentistry.

This externship is a good chance for you to learn how to work with dentists and hygienists, build your communication skills, network,  and get references that will stand you in good stead when you are ready to apply for a job.

How can you get started as a dental assistant?

Trade schools and community colleges often have close links with local employers, and these links can be invaluable for helping a newly qualified dental assistants get their first job.

As a recent graduate of dental assistant school, you will need to network with as many dental professionals as possible. If you were given the chance to do work experience or an externship, try to retain a relationship with the clinic or practice that offered you that opportunity.

Attend career fairs, read job boards, and join the American Dental Assistants Association. Being a member of the ADA offers a number of benefits in terms of education and networking, and also gives access to their members-only job board, giving you access to jobs that may not be advertised on less-specialist platforms.

What continuing education options are available for a dental assistant?

Dental assistants who have passed the CDA and NELDA certifications are well-positioned to consider specializing. The DANB offers a variety of specialization-focused certifications:

These certifications open up additional opportunities for dental assistants who want to work in specialist clinics or who are hoping to advance their careers and enjoy a wider scope of practice.

In addition to these qualifications, dental assistants have the option of engaging in programs run by the ADA, networking with other dental assistants, pursuing CPR, pharmacology, and other courses to augment their existing training, and upgrading their qualifications through more traditional academic means.

A dental assistant who had started their career via a certificate or diploma may find their earning potential increases if they earn an associate’s degree. A dental assistant with an associate’s degree who finds they enjoy the field a lot may wish to upgrade their degree to a bachelor’s and become a hygienist, or pursue even more education and eventually become a dentist.

Direct entry to dentistry courses can be difficult, especially for students who struggled with science classes when they were in high school. Becoming a dental assistant and then working on the science classes required for entry to a dental specialization as a more mature student is becoming a popular alternative entry route to the profession.

Dental assistants are expected to earn continuing dental education credits every year so that they can keep their certifications active. There are many professional certificates that a dental assistant can work on in order to amass the required credits, such as:

  • Infant dental care
  • Advanced radiography
  • Nutrition and oral health
  • Digital imaging

Dentists may also pursue training in the use of software, dental instruments, radiography, or the latest pharmacological drugs used in dental practice.

The ADA may also offer training courses in issues such as two-handed dentistry, ethics, and even chairside manners. Dental assistants spend a lot of time working with patients both in the waiting room and in the dental chair, so it’s important that they have an understanding of how to communicate well with patients, put them at ease, and provide them with a high standard of care.

What are things to consider before choosing a career as a dental assistant?

If you’re considering becoming a dental assistant, you should learn as much as you can about the profession before you start training.

Working as a dental assistant or a dental laboratory technician can be a rewarding position, and it’s a good option for those who want to work in health care but who do not have the means to attend school for the length of time required to become a dentist or a physician.

Many people who pursue a career as a dental assistant do so because they want a healthcare-related job that they can qualify for quickly so they can support their family, or because they need to self-fund their way through college and want to work part-time while earning a valuable qualification. Dental assistant programs are a good fit for people in those circumstances because they provide people with highly marketable skills after just one year (or less) of study.

Not everyone is cut out for a dental career, however. Dental assistants need to have a diverse set of skills, and they’ll be kept very busy at work, filling in as an administrator, receptionist, customer service worker, and dental assistant.

The job requires attention to detail, patience, clinical knowledge, communication skills, and the ability to switch tasks and be polite, friendly, and professional at all times. You may find yourself working long hours or doing what feels like the job of more than one person.

The average salary of a dental assistant is $41,180 per year, although senior dental assistants can earn $58,390 or more. This kind of salary is good for a job that does not require a degree, but it is slightly lower than the average salary (across all professions) in the United States. The exact rate of pay enjoyed by a dental assistant varies between states and also depending on the healthcare setting in which the assistant is working.

Career progression options for dental assistants can be good, however. Once an assistant is qualified they have the option of moving between different healthcare settings to pursue a higher salary, specializing in a specific area of dentistry, or pursuing additional qualifications to work in a more specialized role.

Some assistants and technicians choose to stay in the role because they enjoy the job and they’re happy with the salary they’re making, especially considering they were able to qualify for the job quite quickly.

A certificate or a diploma in dental assisting is relatively affordable to earn, and there are scholarships and bursaries available for those who are on very low incomes, making the qualification even more accessible. This means it’s possible to start a dental assistant career with very little (or no) student debt. Many higher-paid healthcare jobs require four or even eight years of study, meaning it takes several years to get back a return on the time and money invested in education.

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