Dental Assistant Degree Programs and Training

If you have ever worried about going to see the dentist, then you probably already know the importance of having a great dental assistant.

Dental assistants are are on the front lines of a dentist's practice. It may be up to them to help patients feel at ease before their appointments. It's also up to them to make sure the office runs smoothly and efficiently -- from scheduling the appointments to keeping dental records to billing patients.

The job is not just administrative. Dental assistants have hands-on responsibility for patients with tasks like:

  • Teaching patients about dental hygiene
  • Sterilizing equipment
  • Handing dentists the proper instruments during procedures

In some states, assistants with training or certification also perform coronal polishing, apply sealants and fluoride, and take x-rays. As well, some states will require dental assistants to have graduated from an accredited dental program and pass a state or national certification exam before they can practice. Other states allow people to become dental assistants with only a high school diploma and on-the-job training. In either case, they need to be certified in CPR.

Dental assistant degree programs

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), most accredited dental assistant programs take between nine months and one year to complete. Some schools offer a two-year associate degree as well. You can find dental assisting degree programs at career and technical schools, community colleges, and traditional four year colleges and universities.

Applicants to dental degree programs generally need a background in science, like high school classes in biology and anatomy. They also typically need a minimum GPA of at least 2.0 (C), though some schools require a 3.0 (B). You may be required to take prerequisite courses in math, communications, computing or psychology.

To be eligible for certification by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) as a Certified Dental Assistant, you will need to have graduated from an accredited degree program or have on-the-job training and 3,500 hours of work experience. Employers in states without a certification mandate may still prefer to higher dental assistants with formal training and national certification. Diplomas and DANB certifications prove you have achieved a level of professional competence. They can help you to advance your dental assisting career, allow you to take on additional responsibilities, or pursue a dental specialty.

Dental assistant training

Accredited dental assisting degree programs combine classroom training with hands-on practice. You'll learn about teeth, gums, and the jaw, as well as the basics of dental assisting. Classes may include:

  • Chairside assisting
  • Dental materials
  • Dental pharmacology
  • Dental emergencies
  • Oral anatomy
  • Dental office management

Your curriculum may cover advanced topics like dental radiology, too. The classroom portion of your dental assisting degree program may be completed on campus or online, depending on what your school offers.

Your hands-on practice may begin in an on-campus laboratory setting. You'll learn about the tools and techniques used by dental assistants. Many programs include some form of externship -- or supervised practice in an actual dental office. Externships provide real world work experience and can help you with references and networking when it comes time to look for your first job.

Some degree programs also offer training and clinical rotations in specialty dentistry like pediatric dentistry, oral and maxillofacial surgery, and orthodontics.

Career outlook for dental assistants

Both the ADA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) agree that most dental assistants work for dentists. While working in a dentist's office, you will likely work alongside at least one other assistant, as well as working with dental hygienists. Dental assistants can also work for:

  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons
  • Public health organizations or dental schools
  • Insurance companies or dental equipment manufacturers

The BLS reports two-thirds of dental assistants work full time and reports their national median salaries at $34,900 as of May 2013. The top 10 percent of dental assistants earn more than $48,000, and the three top-paying states are New Hampshire, Alaska and Minnesota.

Growth projections for the field of dental assisting are sure to bring a smile. The ADA points to the numbers, at least two assistants for every one dentist, as one way to explain what it calls excellent employment opportunities. The BLS predicts 25 percent job growth through 2022 -- explaining their upbeat projections as a result of improved access to health care due to new federal health laws and an increasing understanding of the role of oral health in our overall wellness.

Sources:

American Dental Association, Education/Careers: Dental Assistant, http://www.ada.org/en/home-ada/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-assistant

Dental Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm

Dental Assistant Schools

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