What is a Dental Assistant?

Are you interested in being a valuable member of a dental team? Do you think you'd thrive in a career that relies on technical, administrative, and people skills? You may want to consider a career as a dental assistant!

Dental assistants can perform a variety of tasks, such as providing administrative support, preparing patients for surgery, and chair-side support as dentists complete exams and procedures.

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What does a Dental Assistant do?

Dental assistants are often the first person that patients see when they walk through the door. It's important that they make patients feel comfortable once they are in the dental chair and are being prepped for treatments and procedures.

They help dentists during dental procedures and anticipate the order of operations so they can hand over whatever tools a dentist may need during a procedure. In order to do this, a dental assistant needs to have knowledge of advanced dental procedures, dental materials, and equipment.

A dental assistant working alongside a dentist, using suction.

The responsibilities of a dental assistant include:

  • Sterilizing dental instruments
  • Preparing the work area for patient treatment by setting out instruments and materials
  • Helping dentists by handing them instruments during procedures
  • Keeping patients’ mouths dry by using suction hoses or other equipment
  • Removing sutures
  • Instructing patients in proper dental hygiene
  • Processing x-rays and doing lab tasks under the direction of a dentist
  • Keeping records of dental treatments
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Working with patients on billing and payment

There are also four regulated tasks that dental assistants may be able to do, depending on the state in which they work. These include:

  • Coronal Polishing - removing soft deposits such as plaque, giving teeth a cleaner appearance
  • Sealant Application - painting a thin, plastic substance over teeth that seals out food particles and acid-producing bacteria to keep teeth from developing cavities
  • Fluoride Application - applying fluoride directly on the teeth as another anti-cavity measure
  • Topical Anesthetics Application - some dental assistants may be qualified to apply topical anesthetic to an area of the patient’s mouth, temporarily numbing the area

Are you suited to be a dental assistant?

Dental assistants have distinct personalities. They tend to be conventional individuals, which means they’re conscientious and conservative. They are logical, efficient, orderly, and organized. Some of them are also social, meaning they’re kind, generous, cooperative, patient, caring, helpful, empathetic, tactful, and friendly.

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What is the workplace of a Dental Assistant like?

Almost all dental assistants work in dental offices. Dental assistants work under the supervision of dentists and may work closely with dental hygienists in their day-to-day activities.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to become a Dental Assistant?

In the U.S., the length of time required to become a dental assistant can vary considerably from state to state.

In jurisdictions where post-secondary education is not required to enter the field, individuals may qualify for jobs after earning a high school diploma or GED.

Most formal training programs exist at the community college or vocational/technical school level. Diploma and certificate programs generally last between nine months to a year. Some schools may offer accelerated training or longer part-time options. Students can earn an Associate Degree in Dental Assisting in two years.

What are Dental Assistants like?

Based on our pool of users, dental assistants tend to be predominately investigative people. They prepare patients for treatments and cleanings; take and develop x-rays; measure blood pressure and pulse rates; and sterilize equipment. Our finding, therefore, is perfectly in line with the dental assistant job description, many aspects of which are examination-, inquiry-, and investigation-centric.

Steps to becoming a Dental Assistant

In the U.S., the path to becoming a dental assistant is determined by state requirements. In general, though, individuals aspiring to enter the field earn at least a high school diploma and many undergo some formal post-secondary training, even if not mandated by the jurisdiction in which they wish to work.

There are other specialty practices one can pursue, including:

Orthodontic Dental Assistant
Preventive Functions Dental Assistant
Restorative Functions Dental Assistant

Should I become a Dental Assistant?

One way to start answering this question is to consider which personality traits and skills are typical among dental assistants:

Teamwork and communication skills
Camaraderie and collaboration are essential in a dental office so that staff can focus on providing excellent customer service. Dental assistants must be team players and effective communicators, working closely with dentists and dental hygienists, who provide direct supervision.

Empathy and interpersonal skills
Dental assistants spend a great deal of time interacting with patients. They must be comfortable working with people of all backgrounds, including many who are anxious or in pain. A pleasant, calming personality goes a long way in establishing rapport with patients.

A patient's safety depends on the ability of dental assistants to closely follow very specific rules and protocols.

Technology skills
Dental assistants need to be comfortable using evolving technology, as well as tools, sterilizing equipment, and a variety of chemicals.

Organization and administrative skills
Assistants need to have all tools and materials laid out for the dentist or hygienist when a procedure begins. This may involve sterilizing tools and preparing certain materials beforehand. As patients move through the cycle of service, dental assistants must pay close attention as they collect and record important medical histories and data.

For further insight into the profession, take a look at the top five reasons that dental assisting school alumni decided to pursue it:

It is an in-demand career
The need for dental assistants is expected to continue to grow, largely for two reasons. The first is that research has revealed a closer link between oral health and general health than was previously believed to exist. Studies have shown that the mouth and body are closely integrated; that many oral health issues share common risk factors with other chronic diseases and conditions. As the public becomes more aware of this, the demand for preventative dental care will increase.

Secondly, there is a greater overall need for dental care, based both on general population growth and the fact that elderly people are now more likely to retain their teeth than in years past. In addition, opportunities for dental assistants exist not only with general practitioner dentists, but with specialists including endodontists, oral surgeons, and orthodontists. Furthermore, all of these professionals often employ more than one single assistant.

Income potential
Considering the relatively minimal amount of education required to become a dental assistant, this career pays rather well.

Opportunity for growth
After some time in their role, dental assistants understand what it takes to run a dental practice, from administration to patient care and more. Sometimes, dental assistants transition into other healthcare positions. With experience and further education and training, some go on to become dental hygienists, dental office managers, or insurance claims processing and coding professionals.

It is also interesting to note that certain states are amending their regulations to allow dental assistants to handle expanded dentistry functions, thereby increasing demand in the field.

Working environment
Typically, no two days are exactly the same in the dentist office environment. On the other hand, the occupation generally offers a consistent, traditional 9-to-5 schedule or part-time opportunities that allow for an appealing work/life balance.

The work is rewarding
Dental assistants can make a real difference in patient’s lives. One of the responsibilities of the job is to listen to patients’ concerns and make sure that they feel comfortable. Accomplishing this can be a source of great pride.

Dental Assistants are also known as:
Registered Dental Assistant Certified Dental Assistant Certified Registered Dental Assistant