Dental Assistants - What They Do

Dental assistants assist dentists, dental hygienists and dental therapists during the examination and treatment of patients and perform clerical functions. They work in dentists' offices, community health centres, clinics and in educational institutions.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

  • Prepare patients for dental examination and assist the dentist during examinations and dental treatments
  • Sterilize and maintain instruments and equipment
  • Prepare dental instruments and filling materials
  • Take and develop X-rays
  • Polish teeth and clinical crowns and apply fluoride and sealant
  • Take preliminary impressions for diagnostic casts
  • Fabricate and place temporary crowns and restorations
  • Educate patients concerning oral hygiene
  • Invoice patients for dental services
  • Schedule patient appointments and record dental procedures performed
  • Order dental and office supplies
  • May perform intra-oral duties such as remove sutures, take and record vital signs, apply desensitizing agents, topical anaesthetic, anticariogenic agents, coronal whitening and apply and remove rubber dams.

Job titles

  • certified dental assistant
  • certified intra-oral dental assistant
  • dental assistant
  • registered dental assistant
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • Completion of an eight-month to one-year college or other program in dental assistance or Completion of secondary school with on-the-job training is required.
  • Licensing is required to perform intra-oral duties in all provinces. In Quebec, intra-oral duties are not performed by dental assistants.

Essential Skills


  • Read instructions and other text entries on product labels and packaging, e.g. read product labels for mixing instructions and special handling requirements. (1)
  • Read short notes to co-workers, e.g. read short notes from receptionists to learn about special requests and late arriving patients. (1)
  • Read text entries in administrative and reporting forms, e.g. scan insurance company forms to learn about the cost coverage of specific procedures. (2)
  • Read flyers, brochures and other promotional material to learn about promotions and new products, e.g. read about service options for cephalometric X-ray equipment in suppliers' brochures. (2)
  • Read manuals and guidelines to learn about methods and procedures for their work, e.g. read guidelines published by the Canadian Dental Association to learn about oral care for older adults. (3)
  • May read journals, magazines and website articles to stay current on industry trends and broaden their knowledge of techniques and materials. (3)
  • May read reference books, e.g. read oral pathology reference books to learn about diseases of the gums and teeth. (3)

Document use

  • Scan a variety of symbols and icons, e.g. scan Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) symbols to identify potential biohazards. (1)
  • Locate data, such as dates, sizes, codes and quantities, on labels, e.g. locate ingredient concentration levels on product labels. (1)
  • Locate data in lists, tables and schedules, e.g. locate data, such as product names, identification numbers, classifications, quantities and costs, in suppliers' product lists. (2)
  • Complete a variety of forms including inventory control forms, receipts, order forms, laboratory and X-ray requisition forms, insurance claims and dental charts by entering data, such as dates, times, quantities and costs. (3)
  • Locate dimensions, angles and other data in various technical drawings, e.g. analyze assembly drawings to learn how to assemble and disassemble air-water syringes. (3)
  • Scan X-rays to determine their quality and usefulness. (3)


  • Write short text entries in reporting and administrative forms, e.g. write the procedures completed on dental charts. (1)
  • Write reminders and short notes to co-workers and colleagues, e.g. write short notes to inform specialists about new referrals. (1)
  • Write letters to patients and their relatives on behalf of dentists, e.g. write a letter to a patient who did not show up for an appointment. (2)
  • May write instructions, e.g. write notes for patients outlining procedures that have been done and instructions for medication and other post-operative care. (2)


  • Count cash and make change for cash payments, from patients, for exams and procedures not covered by dental insurance plans. (1)
  • Compare options to get the best prices when ordering new supplies. (1)
  • May measure pressures by reading numerical, colour-coded gauges when using sterilizers. (1)
  • Compare measurements of time, dimension and pressure to specifications, e.g. compare pressure readings of sterilization to specifications to determine when the equipment is ready for use. (1)
  • Estimate time needed to perform job duties using past experience as a guide, e.g. estimate the time needed for an appointment by assessing the nature and complexity of dental procedures to be performed. (1)
  • Calculate and verify invoice and receipt amounts, e.g. calculate amounts to be claimed from dental insurance plans. (2)
  • Create appointment schedules for dentists, frequently adjusting them because of cancellations and other unexpected events. (2)
  • Calculate quantities of materials for mixtures, e.g. calculate the amount of water and plaster needed for a specific type of dental cast. (2)
  • Collect and analyze operational data, e.g. collect and analyze data on various types of dental procedures to calculate the average time spent on each type. (2)
  • May calculate amounts for debit and credit transactions, accounts receivable and payable, bank reconciliations and summaries in general ledgers. (3)

Oral communication

  • Talk to suppliers to learn about the availability of products and their delivery dates. (1)
  • Exchange information with dentists, e.g. listen to the dentist's directions before and during examinations and discuss patient treatments and conditions. (2)
  • Exchange information with co-workers, e.g. speak with co-workers to obtain information and coordinate activities. (2)
  • Talk to patients and their relatives, e.g. explain treatments and oral hygiene practices to young patients and their parents. (2)
  • Reassure patients to reduce anxieties and to comfort those undergoing painful dental procedures. (2)


  • Encounter patients with special needs, e.g. serve those in wheelchairs who cannot lift themselves into the dentist's chair. They address their needs, such as by lifting them into the chair with the help of another staff member. (1)
  • May select patients to fill cancelled appointments. They may use first-come, first-served rule or assign priorities based on the severity of dental health conditions. (1)
  • Select methods to organize materials and office supplies. (1)
  • Decide the order of tasks and their priorities, e.g. decide the order in which to prepare patients for dental treatments. (1)
  • Judge the performance of products, such as fluoride treatments and moulding compounds. (1)
  • Evaluate the performance of equipment, such as saliva ejectors and evacuators. (1)
  • Judge the condition and cleanliness of tools, such as probes and mouth mirrors. (1)
  • Locate information about patients by asking them questions and by reading charts for information about their medical condition and special needs. (1)
  • Encounter nervous patients who are fearful of dental procedures. They speak using a reassuring tone of voice and provide information to reduce fears and anxieties. (2)
  • Fall behind schedule. They try speeding up procedures, rescheduling procedures or reducing the time dentists spend talking to patients. (2)
  • May select suppliers and the supplies and materials to purchase. They may take into account factors, such as budgets and anticipated needs. (2)
  • Evaluate the usefulness of X-rays and teeth moulds. (2)
  • Organize workday according to the scheduled appointments. They assess what preparation is required for each patient, sometimes helping several patients at the same time. (2)
  • Consult catalogues and co-workers to find out about new products and to compare products or suppliers. (2)
  • Locate specifications, such as application times, colour codes and ingredients, by scanning product labels, packaging and information posted on manufacturers' websites and by talking with suppliers and co-workers. (2)
  • Consult oral pathology reference books, co-workers and dentists for information about diseases of the gums and teeth. (2)

Digital technology

  • May use calculators and personal digital assistant (PDA) devices to complete numeracy-related tasks, such as calculating material requirements. (1)
  • May operate point-of-sale equipment, such as electronic cash registers, bar scanners, scales and touch-screens, to complete billings. (1)
  • May use office equipment, such as printers, scanners, fax machines, copiers and postage meters, to perform clerical tasks. (1)
  • Operate electronic sanitization equipment, such as dry heat sterilizers and cage washers. (1)
  • May use word processing software to write letters. (2)
  • May use specialized dental billing and accounting software to schedule appointments, input procedure codes and generate bills and expense statements. (2)
  • May use specialized databases to retrieve patients' medical histories and charts. (2)
  • May use databases to input inventory and determine the availability of materials and supplies. (2)
  • May use intranets and email applications to exchange information and documents with co-workers, dentists and suppliers. (2)
  • May use browsers and search engines to locate information guidelines and bulletins from organizations, such as the Canadian Dental Association. (2)
  • May use the Internet to access training courses and seminars offered by suppliers, employers and trainers. (2)
  • Operate electronic dentistry systems, which include air and water syringes, saliva ejectors and evacuators. (2)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Dental assistants perform some tasks independently but coordinate their work with that of dentists, dental hygienists and receptionists. They spend most of their time working with dentists, assisting with dental procedures. They spend part of each day working independently, mixing materials, preparing instruments and completing housekeeping related tasks.

Continuous Learning

Dental assistants have an ongoing need to learn. They learn about new products and dental procedures. Some obtain continuing education credits through training offered by colleges and universities. Some obtain new information by attending courses or meetings conducted by dental associations, private companies or dental study clubs.