Dental assistants perform a vital role in helping a dental office function. These trained assistants help dentists carry out treatments on patients, supporting dentists as they perform examinations, extractions, fillings, and other procedures.
The responsibilities of a dental assistant include performing laboratory tests, delivering basic patient care, keeping records, and carrying out administrative duties. There is only one way to become a Certified Dental Assistant in the United States, and that is by completing a dental assistant program then passing an examination set by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).
Currently, there are 39 states that require dental assistants to be certified. The most commonly required certification is the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA), which requires prospective assistants to pass three examinations:
- General Chairside Assisting (GC)
- Infection Control Exam (ICE)
- Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)
There are three certifications that dental assistants can pursue:
- National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
- Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)
- Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
Many people who pursue dental accreditation with the goal of becoming a clinical dental assistant have already spent a couple of years working as a dental hygienist and are looking to take the next step in their career. Dental hygienists are usually educated to associate’s degree level. Standalone dental assistant programs are also usually a two-year associate’s degree.
Courses for an online dental assistant associate program
Dental assisting programs are usually taught at community colleges or technical schools. Diplomas take just one year to complete, while associate degrees take two years.
An individual who has already completed a dental hygiene associate degree may be able to undertake an accelerated program and complete a dental assistant degree in just one year.
What can you expect to learn in an online associate medical and dental assisting degree program?
Dental assistant programs usually include theoretical learning, coursework, and hands-on learning. The hands-on requirement means that it’s not possible to complete a full dental assisting degree program online. There will always be a need to attend a campus or intern at a local clinic to gain the experience needed for the NELDA or other dental assistant certifications.
Coursework covers a variety of topics including:
- Oral anatomy
- Dental office administration
- Dental materials
- Dental radiography
- Dental pharmacology
- First aid and CPR
Not all states require a person to have an associate’s degree and a certification to become a dental assistant, but the certifications are highly regarded even in states where they aren’t a requirement. Certified dental assistants typically earn more (approximately $2 per hour more) than non-certified ones.
Some online dental assistant courses prepare learners to take the Registered Dental Assistant Exam. This is administered by American Medical Technologists, and is not an exam that leads to state licensure, but is still a valuable qualification for those who wish to operate in states that don’t require DANB recognition.
What courses do you take in an online certificate in dental assistance program?
Dental assistant courses will cover a variety of topics including:
- Preventative dentistry and nutrition
- Front-office procedures
- Introduction to oral anatomy
- Dental anatomy and terminology
- Dental examinations
- Dental pain management
- Oral maxillofacial surgery
- Restorative dental procedures
Dental assistants are expected to be well-versed in the work that dentists do, and to have a broad understanding of the terminology used by dentists, what they’re looking for in examinations, and the tools being used.
The job of the dental assistant is not to interpret examination results or prescribe treatments, but to support dentists as they do their work. This requires not only theoretical training but for the student to get some real-world experience to build the confidence that can only come with actually doing the job of a dental assistant.
What is the difference between a dental assistant diploma and a dental assistant associate degree?
The main difference between a dental assistant associate degree and a diploma or a certificate is the level of training that it entails.
Dental assistant diplomas
Dental assisting certificates and diplomas are relatively short courses of study that provide the student with the skills they need to access an entry-level job in the profession. This makes a certificate or diploma an appealing option for someone who is interested in trying out a job in dentistry before committing to a full degree program.
A dental assisting diploma or certificate holder can opt to continue their education or take a bridge program to earn a degree, receiving credit for some of the courses they took on their diploma, and therefore reducing the need to duplicate their work.
It is possible to earn DANB certification after completing a diploma or certificate in dental assisting. Most programs take between nine months and one year, depending on how intensive they are. They’ll include some on-the-job, supervised training so that the assistant has the skills required to work in most environments.
Dental assistants who hold a diploma have the option of moving on to specialize in an allied field such as orthodontics or oral surgery, or completing a bachelor’s degree and becoming a state-licensed dental hygienist.
Dental assistant associate degrees
A dental assistant associate degree is a more in-depth program than a diploma. Associate degrees take two years to complete, if studied full time, and count as one half of a four-year degree, so if the student decides to continue their education they will be able to simply join year three of a full degree program.
Someone who studies a dental assistant associate degree will often have the chance to earn a certificate along the way and will be able to test for DANB certification at the end of their course, giving them an advantage in the job market.
Dental assisting associate degrees cover a few more aspects of dental care than the diplomas do, touching on areas such as community health, office management, and related oral health professions.
Overall, the skills covered in a dental assisting associate degree are very similar to those covered in a certificate, but the student gets to learn the theory behind the skills in a classroom environment and will spend more time practicing each skill in a clinical setting as well.
The extra hands-on clinical learning time you’ll get by spending four years at dental assistant school makes it well worth getting an associate degree because you’ll leave the school with more confidence, a higher-value qualification, and more chance of getting a job in the field.
Why would someone study for a diploma instead of a degree?
The main reason to consider getting a dental associate diploma instead of a degree is if you’re self-funding your studies and aren’t sure if becoming a dental assistant is the right job for you.
It’s possible to practice as a dental assistant without a two-year degree, and there are routes to certification, too. However, just like registered nurses with degrees are in higher demand than vocational nurses, a dental assisting associate degree adds a lot to a would-be dental assistant’s CV.
Best online dental assisting programs
There are several dental assisting programs online that allow a student to complete a significant portion of a dental assistant diploma or associate degree at their own pace, remotely.
It’s still important to earn some hands-on experience, which is why accredited dental assisting programs with an online component offer a work experience option. Make sure any program you’re considering studying has something in place to allow their students to get some real-world experience.
Where can you find the best online dental assistant programs?
The best online dental assistant programs are usually offered by institutions that also deliver in-person training, and allow students to complete the more general or administrative parts of the course remotely.
These self-paced courses allow someone who is considering a career change or working to subsidize their studies to get started with studying for a career in the dental profession without having to commit to a period of full-time study.
Some of the best online dental assisting programs include:
University of Georgia
The University of Georgia offers an online Administrative Dental Assistant program. This program is 100% online and focuses on running a dental office. This means students don’t learn about the practical clinical areas of dentistry.
Students will learn how to run a dental office, how to interview patients, take notes and record treatment information. These skills will stand an individual in good stead of they were to look for entry into a practical program at a later date. In addition, it’s possible to become a certified dental assistant through practical experience alone, and a would-be dental assistant could use this program to get their first job in a dental office, then earn supervised practice time while in that job.
Texarkana College offers an incredibly affordable 50 credit Dental Assistant Program. This program is delivered online through videos, online lectures and animated simulations. Students have the chance to practice the skills they’ve learned through clinical externships and there’s a heavy coursework weighting to the course as well.
There are opportunities for students to take national and state certifications upon completion of the course. At the time of writing, the course costs less than $26 per credit, making it one of the most affordable options for individuals looking for a dental assistant qualification that leads to certification.
Sinclair Community College
Students who want to pursue a practical dental assistant program but who feel they might benefit from having some access to on-campus tuition may be interested in the hybrid program run by Sinclair Community College. This program allows students to study to become a dental assistant by completing a program of distance learning plus attending one or two days of on-campus tuition each week.
Hudson Valley Community College
Those who are hoping to qualify as a dental assistant in a relatively short time period could consider the Dental Assistant Certificate from Hudson Valley Community College. This course is worth 27 credits and includes online study plus 225 hours of supervised clinical experience.
Those who are already working in the field of dental care and who have extensive work experience plus a CPR qualification can take an alternative version of the course that will count towards their dental assistant license but that takes into account their existing experience.
What indicates a strong online dental assistant degree program?
Dental assistant degree programs should be accredited and should include work experience, either through a teaching clinic on-campus, or via externships. A good online dental assistant degree program will make an effort to find opportunities for people to get the experience they need for the certification.
There are relatively standard curriculum requirements for dental assistant programs, because of the in-depth nature of the tests that assistants are required to take. This means you can be reasonably confident that any accredited program will be of a high quality.
How can you determine which online dental assisting program is best for your needs?
When you’re looking for an online dental assisting program, there are several things you should take into account, including:
- How long it takes to complete the program
- Whether it’s a practical or admin assistant focused program
- How many credits the program is worth
- The level of the program
- How clinical experience is earned
- Certification options
- Whether it’s entirely online or hybrid
- How learning material is delivered
The price of dental assistant programs can vary dramatically, with some programs costing as little as $1,500, while others cost $5,000 or more. An associate degree will cost more than a certificate, but the pay-off is that you’ll likely be able to get a higher-paying job when you graduate.
Unless you have some prior experience in an allied health profession or an hygienist that is looking to add dental assistant training to your existing skill set, you’re unlikely to be able to complete a dental assisting program in less than nine months. Most certificates take one year, and associate degrees take two years, so you’ll need to give yourself some time to train to become a certified dental assistant.
If you’re studying part-time, the course may take slightly longer. Remember you’ll have to attend some externships or travel to the campus to get hands-on experience. So, the best dental assistant program for you is one that hosts the practical sessions at a venue you can get to, on a day when it’s possible for you to attend.
There’s no point signing up for an online course run by a university or college in Texas if you live in California and none of the dentists in your area take part in the externship program. Make sure you’ll be able to get the practical hours you need without spending a lot of money (and time) traveling to the clinic.
It’s also a good idea to think about how the content is delivered. If you’re using an online learning platform, does the platform make it easy for you to learn? Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to online learning. Some people find that they retain information well from reading, others are happy with pre-recorded videos, and some people need the motivation of having other people with them to work in a group.
One thing to consider before starting the course is how you’re going to motivate yourself to complete the distance learning elements. Self-paced study can be hard for some people, especially those who have a job or family commitments to deal with.
If there’s an open day for students, ask questions about what sort of support is available and how they work with individuals who fall behind or who need help with the material. If possible, talk to current and former students to see what they have to say. Dental assistant programs are quite academically rigorous, so it’s important that you have access to responsive and supportive faculty.
Hybrid online dental assisting programs
It’s rare for a dental assisting course, or hygienist courses for that matter, to be entirely online. Most of them are taught in a hybrid model where you’ll spend at least one day a week, often two days a week, on campus.
Some universities allow students to study all of the offline, general education or administrative elements of their degrees online, then do the practical elements via a summer school or an intensive set of lessons towards the end of the course.
This might work for people who are working part or full-time while studying, and who wouldn’t be able to commit to doing one or two days per week over the course of a year. The summer school option could also suit an out-of-state student who would find it impractical to attend classes regularly but could book a study holiday.
How does a hybrid online dental assisting program work?
Hybrid programs offer a compromise for students studying topics that require a lot of supervised practice, so they’re common in the life sciences and health care. These programs aren’t exclusive to dental assistant courses.
Hybrid programs make a lot of sense for dental assisting associate degrees. These courses have a significant amount of lecture and academic material for the student to learn, and this is all content that could be covered online via pre-recorded lectures, required reading, or group sessions.
The student’s understanding of these classes can be assessed via written coursework. Some institutions even use 3D models and simulations to assess a learner as they work through the course.
Simulations are no substitute for hands-on training, however, so the student will need to come to the campus or take part in an externship to get practice with things like four-handed dentistry. That’s where the hybrid model comes in.
What aspects of a hybrid online dental assisting program are completed in person?
All practical elements of dental practice should be evaluated as a part of the certificate program, so the hybrid element of the program will include everything from role plays of working with patients and demonstrating dental hygiene to examining patients and working with a dentist to assist them in various procedures.
Dental assistants may be asked to apply fluoride, operate certain tools during extractions or fillings, and otherwise assist a dentist or hygienist in their day-to-day work. Teaching clinics at colleges or universities offer a valuable opportunity for people to get practice with this sort of thing, and many online courses are run by universities, colleges or trade schools that have clinics attached to them.
Other dental assistant schools use the externship model, in which case you may complete more of your studies online but then be placed with a dentist to gain your practice hours as you work towards your certification.
Financing your online dental assistant program
There will be some costs associated with qualifying as a dental assistant, but online dental assisting programs often cost less than other health care programs. It’s possible to gain a certificate in less than a year, with tuition costs of as little as $1,500 from some online colleges.
An associates degree could cost much more than that, with fees of $5,000 or more for online study being common. On-campus costs are higher again.
Fortunately, financial aid is available for people who are looking to get into the dental field, and other areas of health care.
How much financial aid can you get for dental assistant school?
Many students are able to get their places at dental assistant school fully-funded. For example, the Pacific Dental Services Foundation offers need-based scholarships of up to $5,000, and dental assistant courses are one of the courses that are covered by the scholarship.
Another option for would-be dental assistants is the ADAA Scholarship Program. The foundation offers a variety of scholarships and awards, some of which are for existing students who are high-achievers, and some of which are for students who might otherwise not be able to embark on a course of study.
Some businesses associated with dentistry, such as Colgate and OralB, offer scholarships for young people who are interested in getting involved with dentistry. Other options for people who are looking for funding include individual colleges and universities, and military scholarships.
Each branch of the military has scholarship programs where a person can train to become a nurse, dentist, or other specialist health care provider. Those who are accepted on these scholarships may be eligible to have all of their education and related costs paid for, on the condition that they serve for a certain number of years after completing the qualification. Military scholarships may appeal to those who are considering pursuing more than just a diploma or associate’s degree, since there is the opportunity to continue your education to a higher level while in service.
If you decide to self-fund or take out student loans, you’ll still find yourself on a good financial footing once you graduate. Dental assistants are in high demand and the cost of training is low compared to the earnings that even an entry-level dental assistant can expect.
Those who stay in the profession for several years may be able to take advantage of student loan forgiveness programs. This option could be appealing for dental students who decide that they’d like to progress from being a dental assistant to completing a full dentistry course.
What is the job outlook for a dental assistant?
Working as a dental assistant is a rewarding job in its own right and offers many opportunities for progression. Some people stay in clinics, working as an assistant helping dentists to perform procedures on their patients. Others move into public health, running outreach programs, speaking in schools and educating the public on oral hygiene and how to care for their teeth.
Another option for dental assistants is to focus on office-based roles. Running a dental surgery is a demanding job, and qualified individuals who are good at paperwork and administration will always be in demand.
Many dental assistants are young people who trained as an assistant so they could learn more about the profession. If they enjoy working in the field they may decide to go back to college to train as a hygienist or even earn a full dentistry license and open their own practice.
Some dental assistants decide that a specific area of dentistry such as sedation dentistry or cosmetic dentistry appeals to them. There are some new, emerging fields, such as regenerative dentistry that are getting a lot of attention at the moment, and that are likely to be incredibly lucrative for those who master them. If you’re just getting into the field of dentistry now, you have the chance to be one of those people who is at the forefront of the field, because you can focus your studies on these emerging areas.