Dental assistants are an integral staff of any dental clinic. Like staff nurses in clinics, they are expected to perform a wide variety of tasks during their shift. Their workload is highly dependent on how involved the dentist on duty wants them to be. Although they are often seen assisting the dentist, they can work in the front office: receiving patients, organising rosters of the dental professionals in the office and setting appointments for both patient and dental practitioner. Aside from such duties, dental assistants can also be found in the dental laboratory, filing dental x-rays, sterilising dental equipment or even making sure that dental prostheses fit the patient.
Unlike other careers in the field of healthcare, being a dental assistant does not take much time to pursue. For aspirants wondering how to become a dental assistant, there is a procedure to follow, as with any profession. Although different states will have different requirements for their dental assistants, there are five basic steps how to pursue this practice.
- Graduate from high school or its equivalent.
Before getting any kind of formal training in dental assistance, make sure that you have completed at least high school level or have passed the General Education Degree (GED) as its equivalent. For those who have yet to graduate from high school, take subjects in biology, chemistry and anatomy to ease in during actual training. Depending on the pathways you prefer to pursue, you would also need to have current certification for cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) from a recognised provider and/or a minimum of 3,500 hours of related work experience to even qualify for any form of certification.
- Choose which kind of dental assistant level to pursue.
There are different levels of training intensity that you can choose to undergo before you can become a dental assistant. The easiest level to get into is to be a qualified dental assistant (QDA). You only need to receive training in a dental school or have gained on-the-job instruction, with no special credentials. The next level would be to become a registered dental assistant (RDA). These professionals have passed the state-level registration with the State Board of Dental Examiners. The most intensive level is to be a certified dental assistant (CDA) since they have received the most training and experience plus they have passed the national Certified Dental Assistant Examination (CDAE) which will evaluate their knowledge in radiation health and safety, infection control, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and a general chair side component. You can also choose which kind of specialised dental assistant certification you’d like to have, depending on the exam you’d take from the DANB: preventive function (CPFDA), restorative functions (CRFDA) or orthodontic assistant (COA).
- Enrol in a dental assistant training program.
After you have chosen which kind of dental assistant you want to become, you have to decide which kind of training you’d want to receive. There are year-long certificate programs or the two-year long associate degree, which are very rarely offered. Others learn through dentist supervised on-the-job training. For those who opt for formal training, topics such as office emergencies, radiography, dental surgery, laboratory procedures, dental anatomy and orthodontics are covered with an externship in dental assisting. Critical for those who want to get certified are the mastery of CPR, radiology, radiation health and safety (RHS) and infection control. Some programs will expose their trainees to a wide variety of dental specialties such as general dentistry, prosthodontics, periodontology and implantology, oral surgery, and orthodontics and endodontics. There are also classes in dental office administration and dental pharmacology. Classes are often held in campuses but some establishments offer online classes, except in cases where some laboratory work needs to be done. Online classes allow you to study at your own pace but you have to make sure that the program is recognised by the CODA in order to qualify for certification.
- Qualify for certification and registration.
Either way, dental assistant training courses accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) often qualify their trainees with the General Chairside component of the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) exams, which is the only recognised board for certifying dental assistants. You must be able to pass all three components to become certified. The exams are often administered via computer through a specified test center. In some states, such as Texas, dental assistants who want to work on dental x-rays will have to apply for the State Board of Dental Examiners (SBDE), and complied by newly hired dental assistants within a year. You can also pursue additional trainings and certifications to increase your technical skills. Some certification will need to be renewed annually. Certified dental assistants will have to obtain continuing dental education throughout their practice, which the DANB offers through its Professional Development Examination Program (PDEP) and the DALE Foundation which recommends online courses to earn you credits upon completion.
- Get hired as a dental assistant.
Depending on which state you are located, there is no shortage of vacancies for newly trained dental assistants. As of 2012, there are 303,200 dental assistants on duty in the US. Most openings are found in dental clinics and hospitals. However, the need for the services of dental assistants may also be availed by universities and public health offices. Less traditional jobs may involve processing claims for dental insurance, training new dental assistants or developing new products for dental companies. Although employers value dental assistants with formal training and respectable credentials, they are also on the lookout for certain personal attributes in their potential hires to provide quality service. You should be able to demonstrate your ability to be methodical and should be likable by both dental professionals and their patients.
According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS), the career in dental assistance is predicted to be one of the most in demand jobs in the United States from 2012 up to year 2022. The growth is projected to be at 25 to 30 per cent, faster than the average for all other occupations. The forecast is based on the growth of dental practices catering to the boom in people who value the impact of oral health in their body’s overall wellness. Current federal health legislation also caters to more people who will have access to health insurance, making them most likely to avail of dental services.
Dental assistants may have tons of work in their hands during their shift but they get paid more than the usual healthcare support staff. In the 2012 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median yearly income for dental assistants was at USD 34,500. Most of them work full time but about one in three will have worked part time. Although a career in dental assisting does not require much training nor will it involve any intense corporate competitiveness, many people who have applied these steps how to become a dental assistant have used this as a springboard to take up further studies in the field of dentistry.