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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.

Dental Assistant Certification and Requirements

Dental assistants work alongside dentists to help patients achieve optimal oral health. They may do everything from routine tasks, like scheduling patients or sterilizing the equipment, to more advanced procedures, like polishing teeth or applying sealants. Dental health is an important part of overall health, but going to the dentist can sometimes be an uncomfortable or scary experience, especially for children. A dental assistant's job is helping patients to feel comfortable both before and during their dental procedures.

In order to enter the field of dental assisting, you will need training -- either on-the-job or through an accredited dental assisting school. Your state's regulations, your own certifications or the needs of your employer may dictate the scope of your dental assisting practice. While most dental assistants work in dentist's offices, they may also work with orthodontists, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, clinics or even for an insurance company.

And, as more people gain access to health care that includes dental coverage, the need for well-trained dental assistants will continue to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), predicts 25 percent job growth through 2022. That is much faster than average and represents over 74,000 projected job openings nationwide.

Educational requirements for dental assistants

Entry-level requirements for dental assistants (danb.org) vary by state and can range from on-the-job training to an associate degree and certification. Employers may also determine the level of training needed and some may require certification even if your state does not.

If you are interested in dental assisting as a high school student, you'll want to start your training by taking classes in biology and anatomy. Once you graduate, you may want to apply to an accredited dental assisting school. You can find dental assisting programs at career and technical schools, as well as community colleges. Diploma and certificate programs generally last one year. It may take approximately two years of full-time study to complete an associate degree program.

Accredited dental assisting programs combine classroom training with hands-on experience. Students study the teeth, gums, and jaw, as well as learning about the tools and techniques for cleaning and caring for them. Additionally, you may learn specific skills, like how to take x-rays or how to provide emergency dental care.

Your state may require you to pass a state-specific certification exam or a national certification exam through the Dental Assisting National Board. To become certified by the Dental Assisting National Board, you must have a minimum of on-the-job training and roughly two years experience (3,500 hours) or have graduated from an accredited dental assisting program. You will also need to be trained in CPR.

Benefits of dental assistant certification

Some states will require you to be a CDA, Certified Dental Assistant. Being certified can help prove you have achieved a level of professional competence. Certification can make you more attractive to potential employers even if it is not a state requirement. Also, certain states only allowed certified dental assistants to perform specific duties or advanced procedures. DANB offers certifications for:

  • General chairside assisting
  • Infection control
  • Sealants
  • Impressions
  • Coronal polishing
  • Topical anesthesia
  • Topical fluoride
  • Radiation health and safety
  • Temporaries
  • Orthodontic assisting
  • Impressions

Advanced certifications essentially combine several certificate-level exams. Gaining this level of certification can help you to advance your career or allow you to specialize your practice. Advanced certifications are available for:

  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant

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.

Job Outlook and Employment Settings For Dental Assistants

What is the career outlook for Dental Assistants?

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Dental Assistants337,16019.5%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

In 2008, there were about 295,300 dental assistants nationwide, and that number is expected to increase to 400,900 by the year 2018. This represents an approximate increase of 36% in the number of dental assistants employed in the United States. While we can see that there is an obvious growth trend, the real question is why? Why are dental assistants seeing such an increased demand for their services? To answer that, we need to look more closely at some of the statistics fueling the need for dental care in the U.S.

Studies have shown that periodontal disease has been recognized in 8.52% American adults, with 5.08% of these cases having been ranked as severe. About 30,000 Americans are being diagnosed with oral cancer every year, most cases of which are preventable. Roughly 27% of elderly Americans are completely edentulous due to lack of preventative dental care.

What is truly surprising is the number of teenagers with untreated tooth decay. Nearly 59% of young adults between the ages of 12 and 19 are affected by tooth decay, and a staggering 23% of these adolescents have tooth decay that has gone untreated. This shows us that there is a younger generation not participating in routine dental maintenance. For this reason, dental professionals have been actively promoting preventative care and maintenance. Yet the increasing need for dental care, both preventative and surgical, is the main reason that dental assistants can expect to find lucrative job opportunities and stable career growth.

What Types of Facilities Employ Dental Assistants?

By completing formal dental assistant training, professionals in this career field will be qualified to practice in a variety of clinical environments. Different types of dental practices provide varied levels of services, and so the responsibilities of a dental assistant will vary depending on the type of dental facility they work in. Still, the in-depth training of dental assistants leaves them qualified for a wide range of career possibilities, including employment in:

  • Preventative and maintenance clinics – where dental assistants assist with cavity fillings, cleanings, dental checkups, x-rays, impressions, molds, fluoride treatments, flossing, administering sealants, and patient education.
  • Cosmetic and orthodontic clinics – where dental assistants are involved with teeth whitening, bracing and correction, inlays/onlays, composite bonding, whitening of teeth, dental implants, cosmetic assessments, and complete reconstructions.
  • Maxillofacial surgery centers – encompass most aspects of both preventative and cosmetic dental procedures. However, maxillofacial surgeons are licensed to use general anesthesia, so procedures requiring a patient to be put to sleep during surgery can only be done by a dental surgeon.
  • Emergency dental clinics – where dental assistants work by assisting patients with dental emergencies, such as traumatic injuries or tooth infection that has caused extreme pain and facial swelling.

How does the Dental Assistant's Role Change in these Facilities? The main role of the dental assistant is to support the dentist's needs during dental procedures, but the duties and responsibilities of the dental assistant are directly related to the type of facility they work in.

In a preventative dental facility, the dental assistant may spend his or her day:

  • Assessing the condition of a patient's teeth
  • Coordinating dental x-rays
  • Administering fluoride treatments
  • Educating patients about proper dental care and the importance of routine care

On the other hand, the duties of those with dental assistant careers in a cosmetic clinic may include assisting with dental implants and tooth extractions, or molding temporary inlays until permanents are received from a dental laboratory.

Dental assistants working in emergency clinics are going to see more traumatic injuries to the oral cavity. These patients may be accident victims or patients in such severe pain that they cannot wait for an appointment with their regular dental practitioner.

Dental Assistant Salary

What kind of salary do dental assistants make?

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Dental Assistants$38,690$26,170$53,130
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

The rate of pay for dental assistants can range depending on a number of factors, including location of employment and an individual's experience on the job. Their mean annual wage, as of May 2014, was $35,390, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That calculates to a mean hourly wage of $17.02, the BLS reports. While new hires may have earnings at the lower end of the pay scale, specialized assistants with more experience may be at the upper end. Learn more about how to become a dental assistant.

Is this a high demand field?

Job opportunities for dental assistants are expected to grow by 25 percent, from 2012-2022, according to the BLS. This is considered much faster than average job growth for all occupations and could result in more than 75,000 new positions becoming available. Driving that demand is the need for dentists to hire reliable assistants to help them with some of their more routine activities so that they can be freed up to do more difficult, urgent tasks. Also as dental offices grow, more dental assistants are expected to be needed, according to the BLS.

Is there room for advancement in this field?

Dental assistants trained on the job may be able to advance by completing an education or even by obtaining certification to become a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) or a Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA) through the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB). They can also study to become an Expanded Function Dental Assistant, but the names and requirements for this role can vary by state. Some states even have up to five different levels of dental assistants, according to The Dale Foundation, which is operated by the DANB. Dental assistants may also study to become dental hygienists, an occupation that typically requires an associate degree and that pays more.

Why seek certification and continuing education?

According to The Dale Foundation, just 36,000 of the 295,000 dental assistants working in the U.S. are certified. This gives dental assistants with certification the opportunity to stand out among others and also to prove their knowledge. Continuing education (CE) can also prove advantageous, helping dental assistants earn more money and allowing them to stay up-to-date in the field, reports The Dale Foundation. CE courses can be taken through a number of different organizations, including the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) and others.

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

"Become Certified," Dental Assisting National Board, http://www.danb.org/Become-Certified.aspx

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

"Meet State Requirements," Dental Assisting National Board, http://www.danb.org/Meet-State-Requirements.aspx

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

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