Dental Assistants


Quick Facts: Dental Assistants
2017 Median Pay $37,630 per year 
$18.09 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Postsecondary nondegree award
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2016 332,000
Job Outlook, 2016-26 19% (Much faster than average)
Employment Change, 2016-26 64,600

Join Nextstep Career Mentorship Programs for Dental Assistants with our partners:


Dental Assistants Career, Salary and Education Information

What Dental Assistants Do

Dental assistants perform many tasks, ranging from patient care and taking x rays to recordkeeping and scheduling appointments. Their duties vary by state and by the dentists’ offices where they work.

dental assistant.jpeg

Dental Assistants

Duties of Dental Assistants

Dental assistants typically do the following:

  • Ensure that patients are comfortable in the dental chair

  • Prepare patients and the work area for treatments and procedures

  • Sterilize dental instruments

  • Hand instruments to dentists during procedures

  • Dry patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment

  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene

  • Process x rays and complete lab tasks, under the direction of a dentist

  • Keep records of dental treatments

  • Schedule patient appointments

  • Work with patients on billing and payment

Assistants who perform lab tasks, such as taking impressions of a patient’s teeth, work under the direction of a dentist. They may prepare materials for dental impressions or to create temporary crowns.

Dental assistants are allowed to perform the following procedures in some states:

  • Coronal polishing

  • Sealant application

  • Fluoride application

  • Topical anesthetic application

Coronal polishing, which means removing soft deposits such as plaque, gives teeth a cleaner appearance. In sealant application, a dental assistant paints a thin, plastic substance over teeth that seals out food particles and acid-producing bacteria to keep teeth from developing cavities. Fluoride application, in which fluoride is put directly on the teeth, is another anticavity measure. Some dental assistants may be qualified to apply topical anesthetic to an area of a patient’s mouth, temporarily numbing the area to help prepare a patient for procedures.

Each state regulates the scope of practice for dental assistants.


Work Environment for Dental Assistants

Dental assistants held about 332,000 jobs in 2016. The largest employers of dental assistants were as follows:

Offices of dentists: 91%

Government: 2%

Offices of physicians: 2%

Dental assistants work under the supervision of dentists and work closely with dental hygienists in their day-to-day activities.

Dental assistants wear safety glasses, surgical masks, protective clothing, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. They also must follow safety procedures to minimize risks associated with x-ray machines.

Work Schedules for dental assistants

Most dental assistants work full time. However, nearly 1 in 3 assistants worked part time in 2016. Some may work evenings or weekends.


How to Become an Dental Assistant

There are several possible paths to becoming a dental assistant. Some states require assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. In other states, there are no formal educational requirements and dental assistants learn how to do their jobs through on-the-job training.

Education

Some states require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. Most programs are offered by community colleges, although they also may be offered by vocational or technical schools. Most programs take about 1 year to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma. Programs that last 2 years are less common and lead to an associate’s degree. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), part of the American Dental Association, accredited nearly 300 dental assisting training programs in 2017.

Accredited programs include classroom and laboratory work. Students learn about teeth, gums, jaws, and other areas that dentists work on and the instruments that dentists use. These programs also include supervised practical experience.

High school students interested in a career as a dental assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy.

Training

Dental assistants who do not have formal education in dental assisting may learn their duties through on-the-job training. A dental assistant, hygienist, or dentist in the office teaches the new assistant dental terminology, the names of the instruments, how to complete daily tasks, how to interact with patients, and other activities necessary to help keep the dental office running smoothly.

Important Qualities

Detail oriented. Dental assistants must follow specific rules and protocols, such as infection control procedures, when helping dentists treat patients. Assistants also must be aware of what tasks they are allowed to complete in the state where they work.

Dexterity. Dental assistants must be good at working with their hands. They generally work in tight quarters on a small part of the body, using very precise tools and instruments.

Interpersonal skills. Dental assistants must work closely with dentists and patients. Sometimes patients are in extreme pain and/or mental distress, so the assistant should be sensitive to their emotions.

Listening skills. Dental assistants must listen to patients and other healthcare workers. They need to follow directions from a dentist or dental hygienist, so they can help treat patients and do tasks, such as taking x rays.

Organizational skills. Dental assistants should have excellent organizational skills. They should have the correct tools in place for a dentist or dental hygienist to use when treating a patient.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

States typically do not require licenses for entry-level dental assistants. Some states require dental assistants to be licensed, registered, or certified for entry or advancement. States may require assistants to meet specific licensing requirements in order to work in radiography (x ray), infection control, or other specialties. For specific requirements, contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.

States that allow assistants to perform expanded duties, such as coronal polishing, require that they be licensed, registered, or hold certifications from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). To earn certification from DANB, applicants must pass an exam. The educational requirements for DANB certification are that dental assistants must either have graduated from an accredited program or have a high school diploma and complete the required amount of work experience. Applicants also must have current certification in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).


salaries for Dental Assistants 

The median annual wage for dental assistants was $37,630 in May 2017. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,170, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $53,130.

 

In May 2017, the median annual wages for dental assistants in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Government: $41,480

Offices of dentists: $37,620

Offices of physicians: $35,290

Most athletic trainers work full time. Athletic trainers who work with teams during sporting events may work evenings or weekends and travel often.


Job Outlook for dental assistants

Employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 19 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will continue to increase the demand for preventive dental services. Dentists will continue to hire dental assistants to complete routine tasks, allowing the dentist to work more efficiently. As dental practices grow, more dental assistants will be needed.

As the large baby-boom population ages, and as people keep more of their original teeth than did previous generations, the need to maintain and treat teeth will continue to increase the need for dental care.

Employment projections data for Dental Assistants, 2016-26

Employment, 2016: 332,000

Projected Employment, 2026: 396,600

Change, 2016-2026: +19%, +64,600


Careers Related to dental assistants

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists clean teeth, examine patients for signs of oral diseases such as gingivitis, and provide other preventive dental care. They also educate patients on ways to improve and maintain good oral health.

Medical Assistants

Medical assistants complete administrative and clinical tasks in the offices of physicians, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities. Their duties vary with the location, specialty, and size of the practice.

Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides

Occupational therapy assistants and aides help patients develop, recover, improve, as well as maintain the skills needed for daily living and working. Occupational therapy assistants are directly involved in providing therapy to patients; occupational therapy aides typically perform support activities. Both assistants and aides work under the direction of occupational therapists.

Pharmacy Technicians

Pharmacy technicians help pharmacists dispense prescription medication to customers or health professionals.

Phlebotomists

Phlebotomists draw blood for tests, transfusions, research, or blood donations. Some explain their work to patients and provide assistance when patients have adverse reactions after their blood is drawn.

Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides

Physical therapist assistants, sometimes called PTAs, and physical therapist aides work under the direction and supervision of physical therapists. They help patients who are recovering from injuries and illnesses regain movement and manage pain.

Surgical Technologists

Surgical technologists, also called operating room technicians, assist in surgical operations. They prepare operating rooms, arrange equipment, and help doctors during surgeries.

Veterinary Assistants and Laboratory Animal Caretakers

Veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers care for animals by performing routine tasks under the supervision of scientists, veterinarians, and veterinary technologists and technicians.

OccupationENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION2017 MEDIAN PAY
Dental HygienistsAssociate's degree$74,070
Medical AssistantsPostsecondary nondegree award$32,480
Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides$56,690
Pharmacy TechniciansHigh school diploma or equivalent$31,750
PhlebotomistsPostsecondary nondegree award$33,670
Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides$46,920
Surgical TechnologistsPostsecondary nondegree award$46,310
Veterinary Assistants and Laboratory Animal CaretakersHigh school diploma or equivalent$26,140

Citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Dental Assistants,
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm