Dental assistants perform a variety of patient care, office, and laboratory duties. They sterilize and disinfect instruments and equipment, prepare and lay out the instruments and materials required to treat each patient, and obtain and update patients' dental records. Assistants make patients comfortable in the dental chair and prepare them for treatment. During dental procedures, assistants work alongside the dentist to provide assistance. They hand instruments and materials to dentists and keep patients' mouths dry and clear by using suction hoses or other devices. They also instruct patients on postoperative and general oral healthcare.
Dental assistants may prepare materials for impressions and restorations, and process dental x rays as directed by a dentist. They also may remove sutures, apply topical anesthetics to gums or cavity-preventive agents to teeth, remove excess cement used in the filling process, and place dental dams to isolate teeth for treatment. Many States are expanding dental assistants' duties to include tasks such as coronal polishing and restorative dentistry functions for those assistants who meet specific training and experience requirements.
Dental assistants with laboratory duties make casts of the teeth and mouth from impressions, clean and polish removable appliances, and make temporary crowns. Those with office duties schedule and confirm appointments, receive patients, keep treatment records, send bills, receive payments, and order dental supplies and materials.
Dental assistants must work closely with, and under the supervision of, dentists. Additionally, dental assistants should not be confused with dental hygienists, who are licensed to perform a different set of clinical tasks.
Dental assistants held about 330,200 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of dental assistants were as follows:
- Offices of dentists - 90%
- Offices of physicians - 2%
- Government - 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.
Most dental assistants work full time. Some work evenings or weekends.
Education & Training Required
In most States, there are no formal education or training requirements to become an entry-level dental assistant. High school students interested in a career as a dental assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, health, and office practices. For those wishing to pursue further education, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) approved 281 dental-assisting training programs in 2009. Programs include classroom, laboratory, and preclinical instruction in dental-assisting skills and related theory. Most programs take close to 1 year to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma. Two-year programs offered in community and junior colleges lead to an associate degree. All programs require a high school diploma or its equivalent, and some require science or computer-related courses for admission. A number of private vocational schools offer 4- to 6-month courses in dental assisting, but the Commission on Dental Accreditation does not accredit these programs.
A large number of dental assistants learn through on-the-job training. In these situations, the employing dentist or other dental assistants in the dental office teach the new assistant dental terminology, the names of the instruments, how to perform daily duties, how to interact with patients, and other things necessary to help keep the dental office running smoothly. While some things can be picked up easily, it may be a few months before new dental assistants are completely knowledgeable about their duties and comfortable doing all their tasks without assistance.
A period of on-the-job training is often required even for those who have completed a dental-assisting program or have some previous experience. Different dentists may have their own styles of doing things that need to be learned before an assistant can be comfortable working with them. Office-specific information, such as where files and instruments are kept, will need to be learned at each new job. Also, as dental technology changes, dental assistants need to stay familiar with the instruments and procedures that they will be using or helping dentists to use. On-the-job training may be sufficient to keep assistants up-to-date on these matters.
Most States regulate the duties that dental assistants are allowed to perform. Some States require licensure or registration to perform expanded functions or to perform radiological procedures within a dentist’s office. Licensure may include attending an accredited dental assisting program and passing a written or practical examination. Many States also require continuing education to maintain licensure or registration. However, a few States allow dental assistants to perform any function delegated to them by the dentist. Since requirements vary widely by State, it is recommended to contact the appropriate State board directly for specific requirements.
The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential, administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), is recognized or required in more than 37 States toward meeting various requirements. Candidates may qualify to take the DANB certification examination by graduating from a CODA-accredited dental assisting education program or by having 2 years of full-time, or 4 years of part-time, experience as a dental assistant. In addition, applicants must have current certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. For annual recertification, individuals must earn continuing education credits. Other organizations offer registration, most often at the State level.
Individual States have also adopted different standards for dental assistants who perform certain advanced duties. In some States, dental assistants who perform radiological procedures must complete additional training distinct from that required to perform other expanded functions. Completion of the Radiation Health and Safety examination or the Certified Dental Assistant examination offered by Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) meets the standards in 30 States and the District of Columbia. Some States require completion of a State-approved course in radiology as well. Twelve States have no formal requirements to perform radiological procedures.
Other Skills Required
Dental assistants must be a second pair of hands for a dentist; therefore, dentists look for people who are reliable, work well with others, and have good manual dexterity.
How to Advance
Without further education, advancement opportunities are limited. Some dental assistants become office managers, dental-assisting instructors, dental product sales representatives, or insurance claims processors for dental insurance companies. Others go back to school to become dental hygienists. For many, this entry-level occupation provides basic training and experience and serves as a steppingstone to more highly skilled and higher paying jobs. Assistants wishing to take on expanded functions or perform radiological procedures may choose to complete coursework in those functions allowed under State regulation or, if required, obtain a State-issued license.
Employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 11 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.
About 44,000 openings for dental assistants are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Some of the projected employment growth in this occupation is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020. Additionally, ongoing research linking oral health and general health will continue to increase demand for preventive dental services. Dentists will continue to hire dental assistants to complete routine tasks, allowing dentists to work more efficiently. As dental practices grow, more dental assistants will be needed.
As the large baby-boom population continues to age and as people keep more of their original teeth than in previous generations, the need to maintain and treat teeth will lead to continued increases in the need for dental care.
The median annual wage for dental assistants was $38,660 in May 2021. 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 $29,580, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $59,540.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for dental assistants in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Government - $46,090
- Offices of dentists - $38,500
- Offices of physicians - $38,000
Most dental assistants work full time. Some work evenings or weekends.