What Are Dental Assistants?
Dental assistants fill a variety of important roles within a dental office, from performing clerical duties such as scheduling and record keeping to providing support for dentists as they treat patients. Dental assistants often work with minimal supervision. They routinely prepare treatment rooms for patients by sterilizing equipment and gathering materials required for dental procedures, or they may take X-rays of patients' mouths for the dentist to read. For more information, see our dental assistant career page.
Dental Assistant Program Information
Dental assistant schools teach students the basics of working in a dental office and how to navigate insurance and billing paperwork. There is more than one path to follow to become a dental assistant. Dental assistants might learn their skills through on-the-job training or from campus-based dental assistant programs, which are typically offered at trade schools or community colleges. Dental assistant training may also be available through online or hybrid programs, for those seeking a more flexible schedule.
Some states require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam such as the Certified Dental Assistant exam, according to BLS.gov. State boards of dentistry describe specific requirements, including licensing or certification. The Dental Assisting National Board lists programs approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation in various states. BLS.gov notes that dental assisting programs should provide supervised practical experience and laboratory work with instruction on teeth, gums and jaws. It's important for individuals interested in this field to do research on their own state's licensing regulations.
Dental Assistant Program Types
Dental assistant training programs typically result in one of the following:
- Certificate or Diploma: Vocational and online schools offer this type of program, and the time required can vary widely, with some programs lasting up to 10 months. Accelerated programs are also available, for example, a 14-week course. Studies may cover the use of dental radiology equipment, principles of chair-side assisting, treatment planning and so on.
- Associate Degree: An associate degree may take up to two years of full-time study, and students have the option of further advancing their education with a bachelor's degree. Instruction in general education subjects such as math and English could potentially help students in clerical and administrative duties.
Dental Assistant Course Descriptions
Course content varies from one program to the next, but instruction often includes academic subjects such as radiology, pharmacology, anesthesiology, anatomy and physiology. Common courses include the following:
- Business Administration for Dental Assisting: Dental office management courses can introduce students to specialized software applications, clinical and periodontal charting, submitting insurance claims and more.
- Dental Law and Ethics: Classes typically explore potential legal and ethical issues related to dentistry as well as specific state regulations and laws.
- Dental Terminology and Fundamentals: Broad-ranging topics could include oral anatomy and tooth structures, with an overview of specialized terms.
- Dental Materials: Studies could include laboratory procedures and equipment and safety concerns. Students can examine the properties of different types of cement, materials used for restoration and impression, and gypsum products.
Other coursework could cover community health, computers in dental office administration, and topics like infection control, dental caries and cavity classification.
Dental Assistant Specialties
Students at dental assistant schools may be exposed to different specialties, such as dental radiography, during their training. Dental assistants may also explore specialized career paths after graduation, as they gain knowledge of office practices and procedures. Specialties include the following options, which may require additional education or experience:
- Endodontics (such as root canal therapy)
- Dental hygiene (various practices for cleaning)
- Orthodontics (straightening of tooth irregularities)
- Pediatric dentistry (caring for children)
- Periodontics (for example, care of the gums)
Related Careers For Dental Assistants
Students may seek targeted training to become clinical dental assistants or dental office administrators. With additional education or experience, dental assistants may be able to pursue careers in different fields. Similar occupations could include:
Links to Sources and Associations
The following sources provide information about dental assisting instruction, accreditation and certification exams:
Dental Assistants, Occupational Employment and Wages, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
Dental Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012