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Dental assistants perform a wide range of clinical and administrative tasks, including working to put patients at ease, helping a dentist with procedures, and scheduling appointments. With certification, a dental assistant can also work in roles beyond traditional dental practices, such as in a dental laboratory, among others.
What Does a Dental Assistant Do?
When it comes to duties and responsibilities, a dental assistant does it all. “From greeting the patient, to assisting the dentist chairside, to placing a filling depending on the state you practice in, the dental assistant is the go-to person in the office,” says Susan D. Bentley-Camizzi, CDA, BSDH, MSEd, president-elect of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA).
“The dental assistant (DA) can also fill the role as the DA/business assistant, filing insurance records, ordering supplies, hiring ancillary staff, and (maintaining) compliance and record keeping in regards to infection control. Generally, it is the dental assistant who is the person who has knowledge of every aspect of dentistry and the organization of the practice.”
Here are some common duties performed by a dental assistant:
A Day in the Life of a Dental Assistant
No matter where you work as a dental assistant, it’s likely that no two days will ever be the same. Every day brings different patient needs, emergencies, and other challenges that can require last-minute regrouping and prioritization.
While many dental assistants work full time in eight-hour shifts, others work part time. You may be expected to work outside traditional business hours to accommodate patients during the evening or on weekends. Some dental practices offer services during four 10- to 12-hour days per week, with three days off.
Roles and responsibilities can vary by your work environment and the size of your employer. And the roles of dental assistants in the same practice can vary according to need. Some dental assistants are cross-trained to fill multiple roles that involve both clinical and administrative functions, with the balance between the two changing based on daily schedules.
Here’s what a dental assistant may do on a sample day in a dental office:
Where Dental Assistants Work
While the majority of dental assistants work in dental practices, other industries also employ dental assistants. “Dental assistants today are in demand in all phases of dentistry and all types of practices from private practices to specialty practices and corporate dentistry,” Bentley-Camizzi says.
You’ll also find dental assistants in unexpected places like coroners’ offices, detention/correction centers, professional dental support organizations, and even veterinarians’ offices.
Since every workplace is different, specific responsibilities can vary by employer and the procedures that a dental assistant is qualified to perform. Here’s how dental assisting roles can vary in these common workplaces:
- Dental Practices:
- Dental assistants who work in dental practices perform a combination of clinical and administrative tasks. Specific duties are determined by factors including the size of the practice, the skills and certifications of an individual dental assistant, and daily needs for patient care.
- Dental assistants who work in hospitals typically assist dentists with oral procedures and surgeries. The work may involve assisting in more clinical tasks and less administrative duties than working in a dental practice.
- Insurance Companies:
- Dental assistants who work at insurance companies process insurance claims and verify whether administered treatments qualify for coverage. The work typically focuses on administrative tasks.
- Dental Suppliers and Manufacturing Companies:
- Dental assistants who work for dental suppliers and manufacturing companies can help employers determine the needs of dentists by contributing their knowledge of oral health and dental procedures, and how dental offices work. Their industry knowledge can also give them an advantage if they choose to work in dental supply sales.
- Armed Services:
- Dental assistants who work in the armed services work for dentists who provide dental care to members of the U.S. military. They may be stationed in military dental clinics or virtually anywhere members of the armed services are located, including on a ship or abroad.
Specializing as a Dental Assistant
Dental assistants also work in practices that provide specialized services. Depending on their education and certifications, dental assistants may qualify to assist in providing clinical services and administrative duties in these work environments:
- Public Health:
- Dental assistants who work in public health travel with dentists to low-income and underserved communities to provide education and care in public health facilities or mobile units.
- Dental assistants who work with endodontists assist in diagnosing and treating tooth pain, disease, and infection. The clinical and administrative tasks a dental assistant performs are related to this specialty, which often involves root canal treatment.
- Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology and/or Surgery:
- Dental assistants who work with oral and maxillofacial radiologists or surgeons assist with the clinical and administrative tasks related to surgery. Typically, they must qualify as an expanded duty dental assistant or earn additional certifications to assist in oral surgery.
- Oral Pathology:
- Dental assistants who work in oral pathology assist dentists who specialize in various diseases of the mouth, including oral or pharyngeal cancer.
- Pediatric Dentistry:
- Dental assistants who work in pediatric dentistry assist dentists who treat children from birth to young adulthood, depending on the practice. These dental assistants must have the knowledge and communication skills to work with toddlers, teenagers, and children in between.
- Dental assistants who work in periodontics assist dentists who specialize in care of the gums, bones, and tissue that surround the teeth. They may assist the dentist in procedures including scaling and polishing, which are used to treat gum disease.
While you may not need a formal education to begin working as a dental assistant in your state, completing an accredited dental assisting program is the best way to gain the knowledge and skills you’ll need to work competently in this role. Formal dental assisting programs also can lead to a certificate/diploma or an associate degree.
Your choice of a dental assisting program depends on factors such as time, cost, lifestyle, and long-term career goals. While a certificate/diploma program can help you enter the workforce faster, an associate degree can help you earn college credits that may be transferrable to other allied health programs in the future.
Certification is a professional credential that proves you’ve demonstrated mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to work in a specific role. It’s awarded by a professional organization to candidates who meet the required education, experience, and examination criteria for a specific certification.
The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) is the national certification for general dental assisting. States vary on the need for dental assistants to be certified and/or licensed. Many states don’t have this requirement for general dental assistants, though you may need certification to perform specialized functions such as taking X-rays.
While it’s not necessary, earning the DANB’s CDA certification can provide many professional and personal rewards, including increased responsibilities, higher earnings, and greater career satisfaction, Aronovich says.
Dental assistants can also earn specialty certifications to further expand their knowledge and skills.
|Specialty Certification||Who It’s For|
|Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)||Dental assistants who assist in orthodontic care|
|Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)||Dental assistants who assist in preventive care, including polishing, sealants, and topical fluoride|
|Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)||Dental assistants who assist in services related to restorative dentistry, including impressions and dental fillings|
Salary and Job Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual median salary for a dental assistant is $44,820. Jobs for dental assistants are expected to grow 6.9% through 2032. That translates into 30,100 more jobs, according to the BLS.
The strong job growth is attributed to the growing number of people aged 65 and over, an age when the need for complex dental procedures increases. An increasing emphasis on preventive dental care is also expected to add to the demand for routine dental services.
While many dental assistants work their entire career as a chairside dental assistant, they can take other paths to advance their careers, says Bentley-Camizzi.
You can pursue formal education in the classroom or online to become an expanded function dental assistant. You can also use a formal dental assisting program as a foundation to earn an associate degree in dental hygiene or another allied health profession.
After earning your CDA, you can also expand your skills and career options with specialty certifications.
Aronovich says dental assistants interested in innovative areas of specialization can investigate two new certifications that will be offered in 2022 by the DANB and the Organization for Safety, Asepsis, and Prevention (OSAP):
“With dental assisting, there is not necessarily a typical career progression, but there are many options for career development,” Aronovich says. “Dental assistants who gain education, experience, and meet state requirements can become eligible to perform expanded functions or other additional duties depending on their state.
“Some dental assistants move into a lead dental assistant role and are responsible for supervising and training other dental assistants, while other dental assistants may serve as the infection control coordinator. Others enter into the dental assisting profession with the goal of moving into another role in dentistry, such as dental office management, dental hygiene, or becoming a dentist.”