How Do I Get Certified to be a Dental Assistant?

DentalPost takes a look at the training and education, how to get certified, and the job description of a Dental Assistant.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a dental assistant, you may be wondering where to start and what exactly is involved in the process. There are a number of different paths to becoming a certified dental assistant, but the basic requirements and job expectations are the same regardless.

There’s good news for anyone starting out on the path to becoming a dental assistant: the market for dental assistant jobs is in demand, with the number of available jobs expected to grow at a much faster than average job rate over the next ten years. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that there will be about 38,700 more dental assisting jobs between now and 2028. So, there’s no better time to start looking at a career as a dental assistant.

Job Training and Education

The road to becoming a certified dental assistant usually starts by enrolling in an accredited program at a community college or vocational school. Most programs are about one year long and lead to a certificate or a diploma once all required classes are completed. There are programs that last two years, though they are less common. Most two-year programs are offered through community colleges and lead to an associate degree. A two-degree will help make you more marketable to potential employers, but you’ll need to invest more time and money in a two-year program.

The Commission on Dental Assisting recognizes about 250 programs throughout the United States. These programs are accredited as meeting at least the minimum educational requirements for certification. If you do not wish to complete a program through a school, you may learn the job through on-the-job training in a dental office, though this is less common.

How to Get Certified

Most states do not require dental assistants to be licensed for entry-level or part-time positions, but if you want to advance your career or perform expanded duties, you’ll need to get certified by the Dental Assisting National Board. Certification also makes it easier to get a job once you’ve completed a training program.

To become certified, you must have completed an accredited dental assistant program or have enough years experience in a dental office. You will also need to be certified in CPR. If you do not already have a CPR certification, you can obtain one relatively easily through the American Red Cross. If you qualify for certification, you’ll need to take and pass an exam. Once you pass, and meet any other state or local requirements, you’ll be a certified dental assistant and eligible for employment opportunities. In some places, you may be referred to as a registered (rather than certified) dental assistant, or RDA.

You may decide that you want to perform more advanced procedures like crowns or sealants. If that’s the case, you can train to become an Expanded Function Dental Assistant, or EFDA. An EFDA has more responsibilities and skills than an entry-level dental assistant.

The Job Description

The primary role of a dental assistant is to assist in providing patient care. You will spend most of your time chairside, working closely with both patients and dentists to ensure that dental care is delivered in a safe and efficient environment. You can expect to perform at least some of the following tasks on a routine basis:

  • Ensure patient comfort during exams
  • Prepare patients for dental procedures
  • Inform patients about procedures and answer any questions they may have
  • Sterilize instruments
  • Hand needed instruments to dentists during exams and procedures
  • Use equipment to dry and suction patients’ mouths
  • Educate patients on proper oral hygiene measures
  • Assist in the completion of routine lab tasks and processing of x-ray films
  • Maintain records of dental treatments
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Assist with patient billing and payments

The Skills You’ll Need

Good dental assistants will need a series of skills to do the job effectively:

  • Attention to detail: dental assistants must follow careful procedures to prevent infection or patient injury.
  • Dexterity: you’ll be working frequently in patients’ mouths using precise instruments.
  • Communication skills: because you will be working so closely with patients and dentists, it’s important that you be able to communicate effectively and efficiently with a wide array of personality types.
  • Listening: dental work is precise and requires that you listen carefully to the dentist, your patient, and your colleagues.
  • Organization: you’ll be charged with keeping track of things like instruments and patient records, so it’s important to stay organized.

How To Get A Dental Assistant Job

Once you’ve graduated from a dental assistant program and passed your exam, you’ll want to start looking for employment opportunities. Most dental assistant jobs are in a dentist’s office, though a small percentage of dental assistants work in government facilities or physician offices. The majority of dental assistants work full time.

There are countless job search websites available that will allow you to set up a job alert for position openings in your area. The American Dental Association also hosts job boards and career resources for those interested in a career in dentistry, including dental assistant jobs.

As you first start out looking for jobs, you should focus on entry-level positions. Many dental clinics look for dental assistant candidates that have at least one or two years experience, so it might be helpful to seek out a dental practice that’s looking for a part-time dental assistant, or a dental assistant with less experience to assist with basic procedures in the office.

A career as a dental assistant offers countless opportunities. Dental assistants are a vital part of any dental practice and help ensure patient care and education. Many dental assistants chose to take their careers even further by training as a dental hygienist. And with the need for certified dental assistants expected to grow at a rapid pace over the next ten years, there’s no better time to get started.


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