Dental Assistants

Significant Points

  • Rapid employment growth and above average job turnover should result in good job opportunities.
  • Population growth and greater retention of natural teeth by middle-aged and older people will fuel demand for dental services, and create opportunities for dental assistants.
  • Dentists are expected to hire more assistants to perform routine tasks, so they may devote their own time to more profitable procedures.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Dental assistants perform a variety of patient care, office, and laboratory duties. They work at chair-side as dentists examine and treat patients. They make patients as comfortable as possible in the dental chair, prepare them for treatment, and obtain dental records. Assistants hand instruments and materials to dentists, and keep patients’ mouths dry and clear by using suction or other devices. Assistants also sterilize and disinfect instruments and equipment, prepare tray setups for dental procedures, and instruct patients on postoperative and general oral health care.

Some dental assistants prepare materials for making impressions and restorations, expose radiographs, and process dental x-ray film as directed by a dentist. They may also remove sutures, apply anesthetics and cavity preventive agents to teeth and gums, remove excess cement used in the filling process, and place rubber dams on the teeth to isolate them for individual treatment.

Those with laboratory duties make casts of the teeth and mouth from impressions taken by dentists, clean and polish removable appliances, and make temporary crowns. Dental assistants with office duties schedule and confirm appointments, receive patients, keep treatment records, send bills, receive payments, and order dental supplies and materials.

Dental assistants should not be confused with dental hygienists, who are licensed to perform different clinical tasks. (See the statement on dental hygienists elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Dental assistants work in a well-lighted, clean environment. Their work area is usually near the dental chair, so they can arrange instruments, materials, and medication, and hand them to the dentist when needed. Dental assistants wear gloves and masks to protect themselves from infectious diseases. Following safety procedures minimizes the risks of handling radiographic equipment.

Most dental assistants have a 32- to 40-hour workweek, which may include work on Saturdays or evenings.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Dental assistants held about 229,000 jobs in 1998. More than 3 out of 10 worked part time, sometimes in more than one dental office.

Virtually all dental assistants work in a private dental office. A small number work in dental schools, private and government hospitals, State and local public health departments, or in clinics.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Most assistants learn their skills on the job, though some are trained in dental assisting programs offered by community and junior colleges, trade schools, technical institutes, or the Armed Forces. Assistants must be a dentist’s "third hand"; therefore, dentists look for people who are reliable, can work well with others, and have good manual dexterity. High school students interested in a career as a dental assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, health, and office practices.

The American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation approved 251 dental assisting training programs in 1999. Programs include classroom, laboratory, and preclinical instruction in dental assisting skills and related theory. In addition, students gain practical experience in dental schools, clinics, or dental offices. Most programs take 1 year or less to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma. Two-year programs offered in community and junior colleges lead to an associate degree. All programs require a high school diploma or its equivalent, and some require a typing or science course for admission. Some private vocational schools offer 4- to 6-month courses in dental assisting, but the Commission on Dental Accreditation does not accredit these.

Certification is available through the Dental Assisting National Board. Certification is an acknowledgment of an assistant’s qualifications and professional competence, and may be an asset when seeking employment. In several States that have adopted standards for dental assistants who perform radiological procedures, completion of the certification examination meets those standards. Candidates may qualify to take the certification examination by graduating from an accredited training program, or by having 2 years of full-time experience as a dental assistant. In addition, applicants must have current certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Without further education, advancement opportunities are limited. Some dental assistants working the front office become office managers. Others, working chair-side, go back to school to become dental hygienists.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Job prospects for dental assistants should be good. Employment is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2008. Also, the proportion of workers leaving the occupation and who must be replaced is above average. Many opportunities are for entry-level positions offering on-the-job training.

Population growth and greater retention of natural teeth by middle-aged and older people will fuel demand for dental services. Older dentists, who are less likely to employ assistants, will leave and be replaced by recent graduates, who are more likely to use one, or even two. In addition, as dentists’ workloads increase, they are expected to hire more assistants to perform routine tasks, so they may devote their own time to more profitable procedures.

Numerous job openings for dental assistants will arise from the need to replace assistants who leave the occupation. For many, this entry-level occupation provides basic training and experience and serves as a stepping-stone to more highly skilled and higher paying jobs. Other assistants leave the job to take on family responsibilities, return to school, retire, or for other reasons.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median hourly earnings of dental assistants were $10.88 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $8.94 and $13.11 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.06 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $15.71 an hour.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Workers in other occupations supporting health practitioners include medical assistants, physical therapist assistants, occupational therapy assistants, pharmacy technicians and assistants, and veterinary assistants.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

Information about career opportunities, scholarships, accredited dental assistant programs, and requirements for certification is available from:

  • Commission on Dental Accreditation, American Dental Association, 211 E. Chicago Ave., Suite 1814, Chicago, IL 60611. Internet: http://www.ada.org
  • Dental Assisting National Board, Inc., 676 North Saint Clair, Suite 1880, Chicago, IL 60611. Internet: http://www.dentalassisting.com

For general information about a career as a dental assistant, including training and continuing education, contact:

  • American Dental Assistants Association, 203 North LaSalle St., Suite 1320, Chicago, IL 60601.

For information about a career as a dental assistant and schools offering training, contact:

  • National Association of Health Career Schools, 2301 Academy Dr., Harrisburg, PA 17112.

Information about certification as a dental assistant is available from:

  • American Medical Technologists, 710 Higgins Rd., Park Ridge, IL 60068-5765. Internet: http://www.amt1.com

An industry employing dental assistants that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Health services

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