Dental assistants are part of the dental health care team. They assist dentists in delivering oral health care to patients.
The dental assistant uses interpersonal, administrative, and technical skills to perform a variety of tasks in the dental office. Dental assistants work with dentists when they perform dental treatments. Some of the tasks they perform before and during dental treatment include preparing patients for the treatment, passing dentists instruments and other materials, and keeping patients' mouths dry and clear using suction and other devices. They expose and develop x rays, or radiographs, as well as take impressions of teeth. Sometimes, dental assistants take patients' blood pressure, pulse, and medical histories. Dental assistants help comfort patients before, during, and after treatment. They also teach patients how to prevent oral disease and maintain their overall dental health. Administratively, a dental assistant may oversee an office's infection control practices, schedule patient appointments, answer phones, coordinate billing, and order supplies.
The career offers variety of work, flexibility in scheduling, and direct contact with people. As of 1998, more than three in 10 dental assistants worked part-time. The median hourly wages in the profession was $10.88 in 1998.
Dental assistants work in general dental offices and all dental specialty settings, including orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, periodontics, endodontics, and oral surgery. They also work in solo practices or in public health dentistry, assisting in settings such as schools and community clinics. Dental assistants also work in hospitals to help treat bedridden patients and in dental school clinics, assisting dental students. Other opportunities for dental assistants exist in the insurance industry, as dental insurance claims processors; in vocational and other schools as instructors; and in dental product sales.
Education and training
While, in some states, dental assistants can work in the field without a college degree, dental assistants are usually trained at community colleges, vocational schools, technical institutes, universities, or dental schools. The Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association is the agency that accredits dental assisting programs, of which there are over 200 in the United States. After completing a program that takes about nine to 11 months, plus an exam, dental assistants receive a certificate in dental assisting. To become a Certified Dental Assistant, or CDA, dental assistants must take the CDA examination after they have completed an accredited dental assisting program, or have at least two years of full-time on-the-job training as a dental assistant.
Advanced education and training
Associate or baccalaureate degrees are often required for dental assistants who want to go into teaching at colleges, technical institutes, vocational schools, or universities.
Job prospects in the field of dental assisting are expected to grow much faster than average, compared to other occupations. The job turnover is expected to be high, creating even more opportunity. Also, as the population ages and people keep their teeth, dental assistants will continue to be in demand.
Orthodontics—The dental specialty concerned with treating malocclusions, or bad bites.
Pediatric dentistry—The dental specialty concerned with the dental treatment of children and adolescents.
Periodontics—The dental specialty focused on treating diseases of the soft and hard tissues that surround and support the teeth.
Occupational Outlook Handbook, Dental Assistants section. U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Division of Information Services. 2 Massachusetts Ave., NE, Room 2860. Washington, D.C. 20212. (202) 691-5200. <http://stats.bls.gov>.
American Dental Assistants' Association. 203 North LaSalle Street, Suite 1320, Chicago, IL 60601-1225. (312) 541-1550. <http://www.dentalassistant.org>.
American Dental Association. 211 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611. (312) 440-2806. <http://www.ada.org>.