Disclosure: This article was originally posted at https://dentalcareernow.com/dental-careers/dental-assistant
You know you want to have a career in the medical field but you really have no desire to go to school for an extended period of time. At least, not at the moment. Did you know that dental assisting was ranked as the 17th Best Health Career Support Job by USNews.com? Learn more about how to become a dental assistant so you can enjoy a career in the field of dentistry.
See other options that will get you skilled and working in six months or less.
WHAT DO DENTAL ASSISTANTS DO?
A dental assistant’s job duties will vary by industry and state. They may be taking care of the patient prior to the dentist and hygienist taking over. Or, they may be put in charge of administrative tasks. Dental assistants play an important role in whichever type of office they are employed with. Dental assistants help make the office run smoothly, and can increase the efficiency of the office and staff. Every state has different regulations on what they allow for dental assistants to do. However, dental assistant responsibilities typically include:
- Assisting during procedures
- Preparing the patient for treatment
- Taking patient’s medical history
- Making sure the equipment is sterilized
- Reassuring nervous patients
- Discussing aftercare with patients
- Taking impressions of patient mouth for any needed oral appliances such as bite plates
- Office management such as front desk, answering and making calls, billing, etc.
- In some states, Dental Assistants are allowed to to perform procedures such as fluoride application, sealants, and topical anesthetics.
IS IT THE RIGHT CAREER CHOICE FOR ME?
Check out this Dental Assisting practice test, too.
If you’re considering a career as a dental assistant, you may be wondering if you have what it takes. Are you making the right choice. It’s normal to second guess yourself, especially in the wake of a big decision like picking a career. There are certain qualities you should possess if you are thinking about becoming a dental assistant. Even if these characteristics don’t sound like you, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider becoming a dental assistant.
Key Qualities for Successful Dental Assistants:
- You enjoy helping others
- You are compassionate and empathetic
- You are intelligent and you ‘get’ things
- You always try to do the right thing
- You are patient, personable, and people like you
- You are honest
- You believe in being part of a team
- You love to laugh
- You can meet and surpass goals, both professionally and personally
- You are highly organized
- You pay attention to detail
- You are positive and optimistic
HOW DO I BECOME ONE?
When choosing to become a dental assistant, you are headed toward working a stable, enjoyable job. It doesn’t take long to get the necessary education so you’ll quickly join the workforce. There are two different routes available; trade or vocational school, which takes approximately 9 months-1 year, or community college which takes two years to get an associate’s degree. The benefit of getting an associate’s degree instead of a diploma or certificate is that, if in the future you choose to go back to school and become a dental hygienist, you already have those credits to transfer toward that bachelor’s degree. Please check out this article if you're unsure about trade school vs. a traditional college path. Most states require their dental assistants to be certified so there is a certification exam you’ll be required to sit for once you’ve completed your schooling. To be eligible to sit for the certification exam, you must have graduated or received your diploma from an accredited program. CODA or the Commission on Dental Accreditation has, since 2015, accredited nearly 300 programs nationwide. So, it should not be too difficult to find an accredited program.
Shorter program: 1 year and under
Classes focused specifically on DA
More “well-rounded” education w/liberal arts
Offered at Community College
Offered at Community College
DO I NEED TO GET CERTIFIED?
To become a certified Dental Assistant, you’ll need to sit for, and pass, an Certified Dental Assistant (CDE) exam which is given by the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB). Passing this proves to your potential employer that you are proficient and knowledgeable in the ways of dental assisting. However, it is not a required step, you are able to work as a Dental Assistant without certifications. You would just make more money as a Certified Dental Assistant.
To be eligible to sit for the CDE, you first must go through and pass an accredited dental assistant program. If the program you attended is not accredited, or you were trained on the job, you will be ineligible to take this exam until you completed two years of work as a dental assistant and are able to provide proof.
Each state has different regulations, and some offer other certificate and licenses in addition to the national one. Check with your state to find out their requirements.
THE DENTAL ASSISTANT PROGRAM
When choosing a dental assistant program, first and foremost you should make sure the school is accredited with American Dental Association’s (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
If you have a list of schools you’re thinking about, you may want to compare them by looking at:
- The program’s completion time, and what their prerequisites and curriculum entails. If you want to get it done quickly, and only focus on dental assistant curriculum, then a certificate route is for you. But, if you want more options opened, and you have a bit more time then perhaps consider getting an associate’s degree.
- Consider the school location. Is it convenient to your residence because, depending on which state you’re in, you should factor in inclement weather conditions and long drives. The closer to your home, the more likely you are to get to school every day.
- Is the school affordable? If not, what type of financial aid do they have available to make it more within your reach.
- Does the school offer internships or externships to help their students gain real dental assistant world experience.
- What is the graduation success rate of the school you’re thinking about attending.
- What is the student to teacher ratio. Smaller class sizes equal better academic success for many.
- Does the school prepare you well enough to pass the certification exam.
- Is there a program in place to help their graduating students obtain jobs post-graduation.
COMMON CLASSES YOU'LL COMPLETE
During your time in dental assisting class, you’ll be exposed to subjects such as oral anatomy, radiography, clinical dental assisting. You may also learn administrative skills, how to take x-rays, the process of recording medical history, how to use all the tools of the dental trade, and chair-side manner. Accredited programs will not only include coursework, but also supervised practical, or hands-on, learning.
Every program has a variation on a common curriculum theme due to certain criteria that is expected from accredited schools. You can learn more about your potential programs requirements by calling the school admissions office. Not all states require you to have a diploma to be a dental assistant because some areas allow on-the-job training. However, it’s becoming a more competitive field so prospective employers are now leaning more towards hiring those who went through an accredited dental assistant program.
Courses during your dental assisting training:
- Orientation to Dental Assisting where you’ll learn the history of dentistry and you will touch on all the basics of dental assisting.
- Oral Anatomy is where you will become very familiar with the inner and outer workings of the head, neck and mouth.
- Chair-side Etiquette will teach you how to treat patients and perform dental procedures. There may be more than one course in the curriculum.
- Dental Sciences will have a couple different sections you’ll take separately. You’ll study the microorganisms and diseases of the mouth, as well as treatment.
- Dental Materials teaches you how to use all the tools of the trade. This course may be broken up into a couple different sections that you’ll take separately.
- Basics of Oral Radiology and Clinical Oral Radiology are two different courses that you will be taking. Basics is the class you will learn about the history and effects of radiation, how to protect yourself while taking x-rays, and how to use the different types of machines. Clinical is where you’ll apply that knowledge.
- Office Management teaches the skills to run a dental office. Everything from front desk to administration work will be learned in this type of course.
- Computer Applications will provide instruction on using the business systems used in dental offices. Scheduling, records, accounts receivable and more will be taught.
AVERAGE TUITION COST
There are quite a few factors that go into the cost of dental assistant schools. Private school vs. Public, diploma vs. certificate, in-state school vs. out of state. Some schools include books and supplies while, for others, those are additional and potentially significant costs. Generically speaking, dental assistant programs cost between $1,000-$30,000 and all the previously mentioned factors weigh into those costs. Chattanooga College has a Dental Assistant program that costs around $15,000 before any financial aid packages kick in. And, Keystone Technical Institutes Dental Assistant Program, before financial aid (if you need it) runs around $35,000 and is a 10-month program.
Diploma and certificate programs, because they don’t take as long as an associate’s degree program, will cost significantly less. Also, enrolling in a public school within your home state will greatly reduce the cost, as well. Because out-of-state tuition is much higher than in-state resident tuition. Be sure to check with the financial aid department of the school you plan on attending, they can help you find scholarships, loans, and grants. Make sure to read this article about financial aid to learn more about the process.
THE DENTAL ASSISTANT CAREER LADDER
Expanded Function Dental Assistant: The Expanded Function Dental Assistant is the highest level of Dental Assistant positions. EFDA’s are usually licensed by their state, allowing them to do fillings and sealants. You must be a Certified Dental Assistant with two years of full-time Dental Assistant employment to be eligible.
Dental Assistant Instructor: As a Dental Assistant Instructor, you’d be educating students in the same manner you received your instruction. You would be teaching courses such as radiology, how to use the dental tools, how to interact with patients, keeping dental records, and hands-on instruction. Dental Assistant experience is required if you want to be a Dental Assistant Instructor.
Dental Office Business Team Administrator: Dental Office Business Team Administrators schedule appointments and maintain the office financing and record keeping. They also take care of insurance on the patient level, as well as filing insurance claims. Business Team Administrators are usually the first face a patient will see when they walk in the office so they need to know how to build relationships with patients to keep them coming back. While the Business Team Administrator doesn’t necessarily need to be a Dental Assistant, dentists usually prefer the experience.
Dental Sales Representative: Dental sales reps need to be familiar with sales techniques. The should know dental terminology and types of equipment that are used in a dental office setting, they should also understand the needs of dental offices. Dental sales reps make sure the dental offices that are in their territory have their supplies and technology to keep them up to date. They work very closely with the office staff and the dentist to determine what their needs are.
Dental Hygienist: If you are pursuing a career as a dental hygienist, becoming a dental assistant is a great start. It’s a hands-on educational experience unlike any other. Many who start as assistants move on to become hygienists as this is a natural career progression. Licensing and training for both positions are slightly different. A dental assistant receives experience working directly with patients. Part of the training for this career also includes various safety procedures and logistics of the home dental office.
Dental Consultant: When a dental practice is having issues thriving, they call in a Dental Consultant. The Dental Consultant will work alongside the dentist and office staff to make recommendations on how to get the practice back in working order. The Dental Consultant will also train the dentist and staff on the new best practices for the office. A good dental consultant needs to be familiar with dentist offices and their procedures, they need to know dental terminology, they should understand the dynamics of the office they are working with, and should be an excellent communicator.
Dentist: It is not all that uncommon for a Dental Assistant to continue on through an educational path to become a dentist. Dentists will diagnose, treat, and provide oral care to patients.
Dental Assistants are critical to the functionality of dental practices. By becoming a dental assistant, you are opening up a broad career ladder for yourself. Also, as a dental assistant, you are an important part of a team. And, it only takes a maximum of two years to get there.
SALARY OF A DENTAL ASSISTANT
Usually, dental assistant positions are full time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary of dental assistants in 2021 was $42,510. The top 10 percent of dental assistants earned an average of $59.540. If you are a certified dental assistant, you may find your earnings on the higher end of the spectrum.
Pay for dental assistants may look different in every state and within the industry. For example, dental assistants who work on a college campus earn slightly less than those employed with a dental office. And, dental assistants who work in hospitals or with the government earn higher salaries than the national average for dental assisting. Geographic location will also have an influence over salary. Metropolitan areas pay higher salaries than non-Metropolitan areas.
Top paying states for Dental Assistant jobs in 2021
Median Annual Salary
A GROWING FIELD
Our aging population, combined with more access to insurance, is driving the job outlook for dental assistants up 11 percent between now and 2030 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is a little faster than the national average for all occupations.
Dentists will be looking to hire more employees, including dental assistants, as their offices become busier with people who, with better insurance, are taking care of their oral health. Choosing to become certified may make you extra marketable.