How to Become a Dental Assistant
Every dental practice in the country requires one or more dental assistants. These medical professionals perform a service that is integral for the efficient function of a practice as well as the oral health of patients young and old alike. If you are looking for a career path that offers an exciting challenge, a ton of variety, lots of long-term job prospects, and a chance to make a rewarding difference in people’s lives, becoming a dental assistant is an option to consider. Here’s what you should know.
What Does a Dental Assistant Do?
Dental assistants support the work of both dentists and the administrators of a dental practice. Caring for a patient’s teeth and gums is a major undertaking with a lot of complexity. In order to provide the necessary medical attention to a larger number of patients, dental assistants handle much of the required work before a doctor steps in.
The specific list of duties will vary on a day to day basis and depending on the focus on the dental practice, but these are some of the most common duties:
Dental Assistant Job Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), now is a great time to consider a new career as a dental assistant. According to the BLS’ research, the demand for dental assistants is expected to grow by 19 percent between through 2026, adding 64,600 new jobs to the workforce. This is much faster than the projected rate of growth for all careers. Plus, the field of dental assisting is largely immune to foreseeable changes in the labor market that could shrink the demand for other professionals.
Median Annual Salary
In 2016, the median salary for dental assistants was reported to be $36,940 per year. As the demand for dental assistants continues to grow, the salary expectations will grow in proportion. It is important to also understand that pay for dental assistants varies widely depending on where they work. The demand is higher in some states, geography has a big impact on wages, and some elite practices pay higher salaries to lure the best dental assistants on the market. Before picking a location to pursue your career, investigate what parts of the country offer more of the opportunities you’re looking for.
Steps to Become a Dental Assistant
Get the Necessary Training
Unlike many other career paths, you will not need to earn a four-year degree to become a dental assistant. Most dental assisting programs are offered though community or technical colleges and take between nine months and two years to complete full-time. In order to expand access, there are a growing number of part-time, night-time, and hybrid in-person/online programs available across the country. Students can also choose to pursue a certificate, degree or associate’s degree depending on how much they want to invest in their education.
Degree programs will combine classroom learning with hands-on instruction. Most of the classes will cover topics like oral anatomy, office administration, radiography, pharmacology, first aid, and more. The hands-on instruction will allow students to practice the necessary skills in simulated environments under close supervision. These programs are specifically designed to help graduates transition seamlessly from school into a career.
Obtain a License
You will not have to earn a license in every state to start working as a dental assistant, but it is a requirement in most. The protocol for earning licensure varies in every state, but in most cases it obligates graduates of a dental assisting program to complete a comprehensive exam covering the best practices dental assistants will use on a daily basis.
Seek Out Professional Development
A degree and license in dental assisting simply qualify you to work. But they do not necessarily prepare you to be great at what you do, or to have total agency over you career. In order to provide a higher standard of care and access more appealing job prospects, most dental assistants choose to pursue professional development opportunities.
Additional education and training to learn new treatment techniques or to gain expertise with certain patient populations are both options to consider. There are also certifications available that offer less comprehensive instruction but also take less time and money to complete. Plus, since the field of dental assisting is so large, there are a number of industry conferences, networking opportunities, and professional organizations that offer resources to help ambitious professionals accomplish more in their careers.
Dental Assistant Resources
Dental Assistant Specializations
You can pursue general education, training, and licensure as a dental assistant and find work in thousands of dental practices across the country. But if you are passionate about a certain type of oral medicine, want to work with a certain patient population, or simply want to set yourself above the competition when applying for jobs, there are a number of specialties you can pursue as well. Here are a few to consider:
- Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery – Dental assistants are necessary even when the most extreme oral health treatments are being pursued. In addition to regular training for dental assistants, professionals who work in this setting will need to seek out comprehensive training related to the sensitive nature of surgery.
- Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics – A huge percentage of patients will experience issues with the alignment of their teeth over the course of their lives. The doctors who specialize in correcting alignment issues will require expert dental assistants who understand what is required for teeth straightening.
- Endodontics – This field of dental medicine is focused specifically on performing root canals. This is a delicate and invasive procedure that requires a lot of both the patient and the doctor. Dental assistants will be on hand to ensure the procedure runs smoothly for all involved.
- Periodontics – This field specializes in gum problems. The gums are a critical component of oral health and one of the more sensitive parts of the body. Dental assistants working for a periodontist will complete many of the same duties as their counterparts, but with an intense focus on the gums.
- Prosthodontics – Resolving issues related to missing teeth is the emphasis of this dental specialty. Correcting these sorts of problems requires a comprehensive approach to treatment. Dental assistants will play a large role.
- Pediatric Dentistry – Children present a number of unique challenges, both from a patient perspective and a treatment perspective. Dental assistants who have a special ability to keep kids calm, comfortable and engaged will be in high demand in practices that specialize in pediatric dentistry.
Where Do Dental Assistants Work?
Anywhere there is a doctor focused on oral medicine there is likely to be a dental assistant working at his or her side. All practices employ at least one dental assistant, and most employ a team. That means the vast majority of dental assistants work in general dentistry or specialized dentistry offices.
Since not all dental medicine is isolated to stand-alone offices, there are dental assistants working in a wide variety of healthcare settings. Some work in hospitals and clinics, and other work as part of programs that offer dental services to people located in remote or undeserved areas.
There are also opportunities for dental assistants to work in research or laboratory settings. These jobs may require advanced education and training, but they offer the chance to work on the cutting edge of dental medicine.
Skill to Excel as a Dental Assistant
Much of the work that dental assistants do involves helping patients to feel comfortable and confident. Dentistry is unique for its ability to inspire feelings of anxiety and dread in patients. And even the most minor dental treatments often lead to some pain and discomfort. As a result, dental assistants have to be great at working with people, strangers and long-time patients alike. That places a premium on their soft skills, or character traits and personality. These are the soft skills that the best dental assistants possess:
- Eager to Please – Dental assistants serve as the primary liaison between the dental practice and the patient. As a result, they must be eager and able to meet a wide range of needs and to respond to the unexpected if and when it presents itself. Every patient is a little different, and the dental assistant is there to ensure that everyone receives the level of care and service they want and need.
- Extremely Organized – Dental assisting is a detail oriented profession. And since most dental assistants work with multiple patients throughout the day and need to ensure that more than one complicated protocol is being followed, they will need to be have an excellent attention to detail and be extremely organized. Just one small mistake can have serious consequences for the patient.
- Great at Communicating – Dental assistants are responsible for taking in a lot of information and delivering it back to doctors, patients, administrators, and other stakeholders. As a result, they must be excellent communicators no matter who their audience is or what medium they are using to communicate.
- Committed to Professionalism – In many ways it is the dental assistants who are the face of the practice rather than the doctors. Patients spend the majority of their time with the assistants, and a lot of the most sensitive work is performed before the doctor even arrives. In everything they do, dental assistants must abide by the highest standards of professionalism. When they don’t there can be significant repercussions for both patients and practices.
- Able to be Flexible – Most dental assistants follow a fairly predictable routine on a day to day basis. But deviations from that routine are to be expected. And in the sensitive setting of a dentist’s office, those deviations can be related to a medical emergency or a particularly needy patient. Good dental assistants will be able to respond to change in stride and develop new approaches that are both safe and effective.
- Excellent at Remembering Things – Any seasoned dental assistant will tell you how important a good memory is. Most patients find a dentist they like and keep coming back for years. That means you will work with the same patients over and over again. Remembering what each patient wants and needs rather than having to ask or reference a record is a huge asset. It helps dental assistants to cover all their basis while providing the kind of customized, attentive care that today’s patients expect when they visit the dentist.
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