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How to Become a Dental Assistant

Dental assistants are often a patient's first introduction to the dentist's office, and a large part of their duties revolve around making an office run smoothly. Whether they are scheduling appointments, billing patients, polishing teeth or handing the dentist the right tool at the right time, they are critical members of a health care team.

The first step in a career path as a dental assistant is finding out what it takes to become one.

Getting started: dental assistant program requirements and prerequisites

Most, if not all, dental assistant schools will require you to have graduated from high school, though some will accept a GED. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) suggests interested high school students should take classes in anatomy, chemistry and biology. Individual schools may have more stringent requirements, especially those offering two-year associate's degrees.

To begin with, schools may require a minimum GPA of 2.0 (C) or 3.0 (B). If you are entering a dental assisting program at a college or university level, you may need to take prerequisite courses to be eligible. Those courses may include:

  • Psychology
  • Computer skills
  • Communication
  • Writing
  • Math
  • Health
  • Nutrition

Some programs require applicants to have completed a period of "shadowing" professional dental assistants or performing clinical observations.

Current CPR certification is be required by some schools prior to admission. CPR certification is generally required for all dental assistants. Some states, as well as some schools, mandate background checks for all students entering the health care field.

Dental assistant skills and qualifications

If you are wondering about specific steps to become a dental assistant, the answer largely depends on the state where you live. Some states only require dental assistants to have a high school diploma, have CPR certification and get on-the-job training. In other states, dental assistants have to graduate from an accredited dental assistant school and pass a state (or national) exam as well. To find out what you need, the Dental Assistant National Board breaks it down state by state at danb.org.

On-the-job training

On-the-job training will cover the routine tasks of a dental assistant -- from answering phones and scheduling patients to learning the names of the instruments and how to sterilize them. Dental assistants in states with no formal education requirements may still pursue continuing education and certifications in order to improve their practice, advance their careers or specialize in a certain skill or field of dentistry. Dental assistant without a diploma or certificate from an accredited school can earn nationally-recognized Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification after two years or 3,500 hours of relevant work experience.

Dental assisting school

The path to a dental assisting diploma begins at a technical, career or community college. Some four-year colleges and universities offer dental assisting programs as well. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the majority of dental assistant programs take between nine months and one year to complete. There is the option of a two-year associate's degree in dental assisting.

Accredited dental assistant programs include a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on practice. The classroom portion may be done on campus or online. Students should learn the mechanics of assisting on top of learning about teeth, jaw and gums through courses like:

  • Chairside assisting
  • Oral pathology
  • Bio-dental science
  • Dental materials
  • Dental office management

Some schools offer the opportunity to learn advanced skills like radiography or have clinical rotations that allow you to specialize your practice.

Additional skills

A key component of a dental assistants job involves working with patients. It is therefore important that you have excellent communication skills. This may is especially crucial when working with younger or fearful patients. Your ability to put them at ease during treatments can be critical to delivering quality dental care. Dental assistants should be detail oriented and well organized.

Dental assistant's working environment

Most dental assistants work for a dentist in a traditional dental office. And, according to the ADA, most dentists work with at least two assistants. Assistants may also work alongside dental hygienists. The BLS reports that one-third of dental assistants work part time. Depending on office hours, assistants may work evenings or weekends.

In addition, dental assistants can work in:

  • Orthodontics
  • Maxillofacial facial surgery
  • Dental clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Dental schools
  • Public health
  • Insurance companies
  • Dental equipment sales

The ADA describes job opportunities for dental assistants as excellent, and the BLS predicts 25 percent job growth from 2012 to 2012. This is not just because assistants outnumber dentists by at least two-to-one. This strong growth is driven by improved access to health care as a result of federal health care laws and a increased awareness of the role of oral health in overall wellness.

As far as salary goes, the ADA reports that relies largely upon where you work and what your duties are. The national median salary for dental assistants, according to the BLS, was $34,900 in May 2013. The BLS also reports increased responsibility or specialization may lead to higher wages. Geography may also play a role. The three top-paying states for dental assistants in 2013 were:

  • New Hampshire
  • Alaska
  • Minnesota

You have several options when plotting your course for a career in dental assisting. You may want to start by researching online and on-campus schools to learn about the requirements in your area.

Sources:

American Dental Association, Education/Careers, Dental Assistant Education Requirements and Training, http://www.ada.org/en/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-assistant/education-training-requirements-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