Excellent job prospects and the ability to work part-time makes a career as a Dental Assistant an attractive one. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008, 1/3 of all dental assistants worked part-time. On-the-job training and relatively short dental-assisting training programs provide prospective Dental Assistants with the skills they need to be successful.*
Dental Assistants are essential to any dentist office, assisting dentists with tasks and duties in the office that allow the dentist to focus on more specialized tasks. Dental Assistants handle everything from patient care and lab responsibilities, to office duties.
They prepare materials and instruments, obtain dental records and make patients feel comfortable. During exams and procedures, the Dental Assistant works alongside the dentist, providing assistance. Other duties include teaching patients about post-operative care and general oral healthcare. Dental Assistants who work in labs assist in making crowns, impressions and casts of teeth.
Dental Assistant Schools By State
Steps to Becoming a Dental Assistant
High school students who want to pursue a career as a Dental Assistant should begin by taking classes that focus on biology, chemistry, health and office practices. In many states, formal training and education is not required to become an entry level Dental Assistant. However, a high school diploma or equivalent is required. In some cases, it is a good idea for high school students to take science and computer related courses, as this may be a requirement.
After a period of training, be it on-the-job training or training at an institution, prospective assistants will need to obtain certification from the Dental Assisting National Board. This is required by 37 states. Certification is obtained by taking a licensing exam, passing the written and practical portions. Many states also require 2 years of full-time or 4 years of part-time experience and CPR certification. Once qualifications are met for the specific state in which the Assistant chooses to work, they will earn the title as a Certified Dental Assistant. State guidelines for licensure and certification differ throughout. It is important for prospective Dental Assistants to contact their State Board for their state’s specific requirements.
Areas of Study and Training
Dental Assisting training programs are offered at various community colleges, technical institutes, junior colleges and trade schools. Some programs offered by community colleges will allow prospective assistants to earn their associate’s degree. These training programs provide a well-rounded course of study, with classroom, lab, and preclinical instruction, focusing on dental assisting and related theory. Dental Assistant students in training will learn the importance of reliability, working well with others, and manual dexterity. Upon completion, students will receive a certificate or diploma. Dentistry that requires assistants with more advanced functions, such as radiological procedures, may require specialized training, as well as licensing and certification from the state.
On-the-job training is another way that Dental Assistants gain the knowledge and experience necessary to forward their careers. Under the direct supervision and training of other Dental Assistants as well as the dentist, Dental Assistants in training will learn dental terminology, the names and uses for various instruments and materials, as well as the various office duties involved. Dental Assistant in training will also learn how to interact with patients.
On-the-job training may be required even if the prospective Dental Assistant has completed a training program. Those with access to on-the-job training only, may take a month or two to adjust and learn everything. Each dentist office operates differently, which can also affect the rate at which Assitants in training feel comfortable with their duties.
Education for Dental Assistants doesn’t stop after training. Continuing education is often required to retain licensure. With changes in technology it is ever important for Dental Assistants to stay up to speed with the latest instruments and procedures. On-the-job training may be sufficient for changes in some cases.
Time to Completion
It only takes a few short years to become a Dental Assistant. Dental assisting training programs typically last about one year. Obtaining an associate’s degree takes approximately two years at a community or junior college. Vocational schools offer the shortest course of study, lasting between four and six months, however; vocational courses are not accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.
Qualifying to take the licensing exam often requires graduation from an accredited program. Conversely, two years of full-time experience or four years of part-time experience is also acceptable.
Once deemed a Certified Dental Assistant by the Dental Assisting National Board, annual certification and continuing education credits will be required. State regulations may dictate the duties a Dental Assistant can perform, some requiring more advanced training for radiological procedures.
School Accreditation and Advancement
To obtain a license as a Dental Assistant, many states require that students attend an accredited program. While it is possible to be a dental assistant without attending an accredited program, it is important to be aware of each state’s rules and guidelines. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009, the Commission on Dental Accreditation approved 281 dental assisting training programs.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
As with most career paths, advancement opportunities for Dental Assistants are best for those with further education and training. Career advancements lead to other career options as well as salary increases and other opportunities in the field of dentistry.