A dental assistant is a certified health care professional who performs a wide range of tasks in a dental practice. As a dental assistant, you would work chairside, assisting the dentist during dental procedures, help with patient care, and perform laboratory work. Depending on the size and nature of the dental practice, the dental assistant job could also involve in the front office and back-office operations.
Tasks involved in dental assisting
As a dental assistant, your core responsibility is to provide chairside assistance to the dentist. You would also carry out preliminary and post-procedural functions and provide guidance to the patient regarding oral health.
The job involves a wide spectrum of services and you could be asked to perform any or all of them. If a dental office employs several dental assistants, you could have the opportunity to perform only a few specialized tasks from this spectrum.
As a certified assistant in basic dentistry, you would perform these primary functions:
- Take and develop x-ray impressions. You will need a certification in radiography to be authorized and able to perform this task. Radiography is part of the coursework of most basic certification and diploma courses.
- Record and update the patient's most recent medical history. Before the dental procedure is begun by the dentist, you would record medical history or any changes to it, in order to be aware of allergies, medication, recent surgeries that might require an alteration to the dental procedure, and other such patient care factors.
- Perform a preliminary examination like recording the patient’s blood pressure and pulse.
- Develop an infection control protocol. Dental certifications include a course on this topic to equip you with knowledge about infection control.
- Prepare and sterilize instruments and equipment.
- Prepare the room for the procedure before the patient arrives.
- Ensure that the patient is at ease before, during and after the procedure.
- Apply topical anesthesia.
- During the procedure, you would periodically clear the procedure site using suction devices.
- Hand out equipment to the dentist when required.
- Monitor the patient and help ensure that they are not experiencing pain.
- Provide the patient with detailed instructions for post-procedure care.
- Sometimes you might be required to carry out hygienist duties such as applying fluoride.
- Provide general and specific guidelines to patients about oral health and dental care.
- Take impressions and scans of the patient's teeth for casts or models.
- Perform dental laboratory work like preparing a crown for a proper fit or creating mouth guards.
- Enter patient data using dental software and stay proficient in the use of the software.
- Provide assistance in case of a medical emergency by performing CPR and first aid.
- Apply technical knowledge gained during training to assist the dentist in decisions regarding equipment purchases, which dental software to use and other such decisions, while meeting with dental sales representatives.
As an assistant in endodontics or maxillofacial surgery, you would carry out a few additional tasks:
- Perform medical procedures like preparing and dressing the surgical site, assisting the dental surgeon during surgery, suture removal after surgery, or during a follow-up visit with the patient.
- Assist with and monitor the process of anesthetization. This includes sedating the patient with nitrous oxide, monitoring the anesthesia level, and also the patient’s vital signs during the procedure.
- Provide intravenous anesthesia like in case of surgery like wisdom tooth removal or maxillofacial surgery.
As an assistant in orthodontics, you would carry out these additional tasks:
- Order braces and aligners from the alignment appliance providers.
- Take scans or casts of teeth to send to alignment appliance providers.
- Ensure that the braces or aligners are an optimum fit.
- Ensure that the patient has been compliant with the regular use of the aligners in between appointments.
- Provide instructions to the patient regarding dental care and appliance care during the treatment period.
As an administrator, you would take on certain additional front-office and back-office responsibilities:
- Schedule appointments with the patient.
- Communicate with the patient regarding their payment options and insurance information.
- Manage patient accounts and generate and mail bills and invoices.
- Order dental supplies and equipment.
The occupational setting is a clean and well-lit environment in a dental office that houses a private or group practice, or possibly in a hospital. You could also be employed by an insurance company, a supplier of dental equipment, or a manufacturer.
Qualities required in a dental assistant
- As a dental assistant, you would typically work as a team member at a dentist's practice and should be a team player.
- Since the job responsibilities could be fluid, being flexible enough to move from a medical assistant role to an office administration role when required is an advantage in this profession.
- You need to be personable and possess good communication skills as you would be interfacing with patients most of the time.
- You need to have an interest in science and a strong understanding of human anatomy.
- You need to have good manual dexterity.
Qualification levels and career path
Dental assistant jobs vary according to the level of certification and the laws and requirements of the state where the dentist’s office is located. In some states, dental assistants can begin their careers with job training and earn a certification after completing a stipulated number of work hours.
You can earn an American Dental Certificate or diploma, which typically takes nine to eleven months to complete if you enroll full time. Or you could choose an associate degree, which takes around two years. You have the option of enrolling part-time while you complete on-the-job training.
There are no four-year baccalaureate degrees offered for this profession, but you could use credits earned from associate degree coursework towards a specialized degree such as dental hygienist.
Associate degrees in specialized fields, such as pediatric dentistry, periodontics, endodontics, and others, are available from accredited institutions.
For an entry-level job, however, a basic certification will suffice, and there are a few types.
- A certified dental assistant, or CDA, is a national-level certification in dental assisting. This certificate is awarded by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), a nationally recognized organization. This is typically the basic qualification required for an entry-level job. A National Entry Level Dental Assistant Test can also help you begin your career path.
- A registered dental assistant, or RDA, is a state-level certification. It is earned by successfully completing a state-level exam, which includes state law rules, regulations, and requirements for the job. This certification is exclusive to the state that issues it and cannot be transferred from state to state.
- An expanded function dental assistant or EFDA is authorized to perform duties that are outside the scope of what is considered traditional dental assistant duties. This set of duties also widely varies from state to state. In addition, it depends on the type of dental practice such as orthodontics, endodontics, basic dentistry and so on.
The DANB has compiled a list of state-wise requirements for dental assistants to be authorized as EFDA.
After gaining a few years’ experience as a dental assistant, you can pursue a different path in your career, such as dental lab technician, dental equipment sales representative, dental office administrator, dental hygienist, or dentist.