The principal activity of the dental assistant is to assist the dentist in the care of patients. They differ from dental hygienists in that they do not perform teeth cleaning or other dental hygiene activities. Dental assistants perform a variety of duties involving direct patient and chair-side care. They also perform laboratory and general office tasks.
Duties, Activities, and Scope of Practice
In the course of a day the dental assistant's duties may include any number of tasks related to direct patient care, such as retrieving records, making the patient comfortable in the chair, preparing the instruments the dentist will need for this patient, cleaning and sterilizing the equipment, taking and developing x-rays, handing instruments to the dentist during a procedure, suctioning the patient's mouth, preparing materials, and taking impressions of teeth and restorations.
Dental assistants may make casts of the teeth and mouth from the impressions and make temporary crowns. They can clean and polish removable appliances. Office duties usually include making and confirming appointments, keeping dental records, ordering equipment, and possibly even sending out bills and receiving payments.
Education and Training
Most dental assistants now receive training from dental assistant programs at vocational schools, dental schools, and community colleges. However, some receive on-the-job training in the dentist's office. Formal training programs usually run about eleven months. Graduates receive a certificate or diploma. Community college programs are two years and offer an associate's degree. Some schools do offer accelerated programs, but most of these are not yet accredited. There are currently 265 accredited programs for dental assistants throughout the United States.
To enter a dental-assisting program, applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent, and many programs require applicants to have taken courses in biology, chemistry, health, and use of computers. Office practice courses are also helpful.
The curriculum consists of laboratory and classroom education in biomedical sciences and dental-assisting theory, as well as clinical experience in dental-assisting skills and procedures.
Most states regulate dental assistants and their duties and require licensing or registration. To become licensed or registered, the applicant must have completed an accredited program or have completed two years' experience as a dental assistant. They are then given either a written or practical exam depending upon the state's requirement.
Some states require additional education and licensing exams in areas such as radiology in order to take x-rays. A certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) is offered to those who have graduated from an accredited program or who have two years of experience as a dental assistant and then pass the certification exam. Thirty states recognize this certification. Annual recertification is necessary and requires continuing education.
Work Settings and Salaries
Dental assistants work in dental offices and clinics. Their work is generally performed chair-side or in the office setting. Most work thirty-five to forty hours per week, which may include some evenings or weekends as dentists flex their own schedules to meet the needs of their patients.
The median hourly salary in 2004 was $13.62, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Salaries ranged from $9.11 to $19.97 per hour, and depend on the duties, qualifications, and experience.
Career Potential and Additional Information
This is an entry-level position and is often used as a stepping stone for those who want to become dental hygienists. Those who wish to advance often become office managers, move into teaching dental assisting, or work as sales representatives for dental supply companies.
As with most health care fields, the emphasis on preventative care is creating more of a demand for dental care. As technological advancements provide dentists with better tools for treating their patients, the need to delegate some of their responsibilities also creates a demand for dental assistants. An aging population adds to the need as well.
For more information on a career as a dental assistant, contact the American Dental Assistants Association. Their Web site is