Following a year with unprecedented clinical demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, a number of career roles in health care are experiencing immense growth and present a strong career outlook moving forward. Health care career professionals in these positions play an important role in the care of patients across the country, who rely on them…
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How to Become a Dental Assistant
Alternate Career Titles:
Registered Dental Assistant, RDA, Certified Dental Assistant, CDA
Dental Assistant Job Description: Dental Assistants help Dentists perform basic clerical tasks and offer patient care support.
Dental Assistant Salary (Annual): $40,080
Dental Assistant Salary Range: $27,980 to $56,930
How Long To Become a Dental Assistant: 9 to 11 months
Required Minimum Degree/License: Certification
Become a Dental Assistant
A Dental Assistant is a healthcare professional who works to complete a number of basic clerical and patient care tasks under the supervision of a Dentist. Examples of possible patient interventions performed by Dental Assistants include: preparing patients for treatments and procedures, sterilizing instruments, ensuring patient comfort, handing instruments to Dentists, taking x-rays, and as well, applying fluoride treatments, sealants and topical anesthetic. They usually provide patients with proper oral hygiene education.
It is important to note, that the specific procedures a Dental Assistant may perform vary by state. Many states require Dental Assistants to become Registered or Certified Dental Assistants before they can complete imaging requests.
In addition to direct patient interventions, Dental Assistants sometimes complete a variety of administrative duties such as answering phones, scheduling appointments, maintaining patient records, and addressing invoicing and payment needs.
“Honestly, I am loving my career as a Dental Assistant,” Michelle Murphy, a Dental Assistant working in Denver, Colorado, shared. “I come from a background of many trades and skills, and dental assisting is by far my favorite. I get to go to bed every night knowing that I helped someone feel better and I couldn’t ask for anything more rewarding.”
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Education & Training
To become a Registered or Certified Dental Assistant, learners must enroll in and complete a dental assisting educational program, typically offered at community colleges, technical institutes, dental schools or vocational schools. Although some classes may be completed online, many of the classes involve hands-on training experiences. These programs can take anywhere from 9 to 18 months and can be expensive. These programs are recognized by the American Dental Association and provide nation-wide certification.
Upon completion of an approved program, learners will become eligible to sit the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination, offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Professionals who have experienced on-site training or who have graduated from non-accredited programs are only eligible to take the national certification examination after they have completed a number of years working as a full-time Dental Assistant.
These programs are offered on weekends or weeknights for shorter amounts of time, typically 9 to 12 weeks. They also cost less while still teaching the basics of dental assisting. Some states offer additional training to increase skills, raise income and then eventually lead professionals to taking the national certifying exam through DANB to become certified. Yet, many states do not require Dental Assistants to be registered or certified.
The experience requirements are set by State regulations. Ultimately, the advantage of becoming a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) is that this credential helps assure the public that a professional is fully prepared to assist in the provision of dental care. This certification will help build your resume and make you more attractive to employers. In many areas, CDAs make a higher salary than Dental Assistants who are not certified. This varies state to state. Some employers prefer to hire inexperienced personnel and train them to work in their offices or they may hire someone with just the basic training versus the Certified Dental Assistant. Other courses such as Basic Life Support and radiation safety maybe required for state registration. Usually the CPR and radiation courses are provided by all types of dental assisting training programs.
“My best advice to someone wanting to become a Dental Assistant is to research what is required in their specific state,” Murphy explained. “I attended College in Colorado, and the program was roughly 9 months. Seven months were spent in school split between labs and lectures, and then 240 hours were required as an intern in a clinical setting.”
Murphy advised that prospective Registered Dental Assistants (RDA) should seek to find internships at offices that will let them spend time observing. Regardless of state requirements, she said that spending time shadowing will give a professional an advantage. Also look for offices who let their Dental Assistants assist with basic procedures to increase their skills and confidence.
“While I was in school, long before I ever went out on externship, I went to a few offices to observe for an afternoon and that helped me start a 30-day internship,” Murphy noted. “I really feel that those extra steps aided me to get more hands-on learning and made me better at what I do.”
To advance in a career as a Dental Assistant, many of these professionals choose to pursue the advanced education and credentialing required to become a Dental Hygienist. Dental Assistants may also increase advancement opportunities by managing more entry-level staff.
“There are a couple ways a Dental Assistant can really advance their career,” Murphy confirmed. “For example, they can go to classes to certify as an Expanded Duties Dental Assistant or Expanded Functions Dental Assistant. This certification gives a Dental Assistant the training to be able to do more patient care without a doctor present in the room.”
She continued that getting advice from a supervising Dentist always helps too. Murphy stressed that really any Dental Assistant can choose to go above and beyond, sometimes leading them to pursue other related careers in dentistry, such as that of a Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon.
Experience & Skills
What’s required to be an RDA? “First and foremost, be a person who cares about what they are doing,” Murphy emphasized. “Be open to learning and expanding; and be excited to be where you are each day. Personality is not something a Dentist can teach, but is absolutely something they look for in prospective Dental Assistants.”
Dentists look for a caring, supportive Dental Assistants who seek to learn every day. Training provides the necessary skills to assist with patient care, but a great personality, ethics, empathy and a strong work ethic cannot be taught. Dentists want someone who is dependable, responsible and accountable.
More-so, to be successful in the role of a Dental Assistant, these professionals should have strong interpersonal skills allowing them to effectively communicate with their patients. Interpersonal skills also help Dental Assistants relate to their patients and best determine their physical and emotional needs. The ability to listen further helps these professionals to follow instructions, treat patients and address concerns.
Of course, strong dexterity helps enable Dental Assistants to work with their hands inside the tight constraints of a patient’s mouth. Eye–hand coordination also helps these professionals to utilize and manipulate necessary dental tools and instruments. Lastly, organizational skill sets with an understanding of office management and etiquette are imperative in this role to ensure that each patient receives the proper care, and that their dental and medical records are kept accurately and up-to-date.
Dental Assistants should be kind, understanding and compassionate, as well as invested in the well-being of all patients. They should also be educators who are capable of teaching their patients best practices, so that they may remain mindful of dental hygiene outside of the office.
Dental Assistants need to have patience because many dental patients are afraid, uncertain or reluctant. They need to be able to work well under stressful circumstances or in fast-paced environments. As with most careers in healthcare, these professionals need to genuinely like people and want to help them.
“Be a go-getter and the type of person who hungers for knowledge and who is open to feedback,” Murphy commented. “Be kind and upbeat. Dental Assistants have to interact with Dentists, patients and other staff members every day so they really need to be good communicators.”
As a Registered Dental Assistant, professionals typically work full-time schedules, but about one in three choose to be employed part-time. Regardless of the exact hours worked, many professionals choose to enter this field for the appealing work-life balance because of the great flexibility. Having regularly scheduled hours and team-based offices are two unique factors which make this possible.
While the hours and flexibility may be favorable, working as a Dental Assistant also means many hours up on one’s feet — not to mention being hunched over a patient during clinical work. Correct posture and correct positioning while assisting prevents most postural issues. Most procedures Dental Assistants perform are accomplished sitting in a chair next to the patient.
Therefore, investing in a durable and comfortable pair of shoes can make a big difference! To further protect themselves from work-related physical stresses or infectious diseases, Dental Assistants should constantly wear protective clothing, gloves, safety glasses and surgical masks provided by their employer.
“First thing in the morning, every morning, you want to make sure your operatives are set up for the day, that sterilization was done from the night before and that all equipment is turned on and ready to go,” Murphy explained. “As the day goes by, Dental Assistants will bring back one patient at a time to provide their care, clean up the room and get ready for the next patient. Some days they may be so busy that they don’t have time to sit for lunch, but I promise the career is worth it! Knowing how many people you were able to take care of that day makes it very fulfilling.”
Now is a great time to begin a career in healthcare as a Dental Assistant! Why? Because this occupation is projected to grow 11 percent over the next decade. This huge growth can largely be attributed to greater emphasis being placed on dental hygiene, especially as more links are found between dental care and overall health. Dentists are also choosing to hire more Certified Dental Assistants (CDA) to complete routine tasks, allowing the Dentist to practice more efficiently on their advanced skill sets. The aging baby boomer population is also prompting facilities to hire more Dental Assistants to fill the need for increased dental service.
When searching for employment, professionals should keep in mind that the largest employer of Dental Assistants tend to include Dentist offices, the government and Family Physician offices. States employing the greatest number of Dental Assistants are California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.
To find employment as a CDA, learners should seek to network and make professional connections prior to entering the field. Once certified, reaching out to these connections for advice may yield job opportunities. Completing externships or searching career boards can also lead to favorable employment outcomes.
“Remember, getting hired on full-time after having worked as a temp at an office is possible,” Murphy advised. “Also remember that the dental community tends to be pretty tight and talk a lot, so if you do well as a temp for one Dentist and they have a friend who is hiring, they will be likely to recommend you.”
As a Dental Assistant, professionals can expect to make between $27,980 to $56,930 annually. The median average annual wage for professionals within this career is $40,080 a year. While wages are dependent upon location, experience and education, the top paying state for this occupation is the District of Columbia, followed by Minnesota, New Hampshire, Alaska and North Dakota. Important to note, the top paying industries which employ Certified Dental Assistants are the government, followed by Dental and Physician offices.
“There are a lot of opportunities to earn a very good living in a career as a Dental Assistant, especially if you register through DANB or get certified as an EDDA or EFDA,” Murphy explained. “Keep in mind that, like in any profession, Dental Assistants will get paid what their employer determines they are worth to them. This is where that personality and positive attitude become very important and can make a big difference!”
Unions, Groups and Associations
The American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) is a professional organization for Dental Assistants. The mission of the ADAA is to promote ideals and growth to aid in the accessibility and delivery of quality oral health care to the public.
The National Dental Assistant Association (NDAA) is an auxiliary of the National Dental Association. The group’s mission is to promote the education of Dental Assistants and staff to improve and sustain the profession of dental assisting.
The Pediatric Dental Assistants Association (PDAA) exists to give voice and acknowledge the specialized skills and expertise of participating members. The organization does this by offering educational resources and growth opportunities.
- Research Dental Assistant state requirements
- Research dental assisting programs and determine which would be the best fit
- Enroll in an educational program
- Begin connecting with industry professionals
- Become active on professional pages, such as related Facebook groups
- Seek a short or long-term internship or externship
- Use professional connections to navigate employment opportunities
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Michelle Murphy
Practice: 58 Dental
Location: Denver, CO
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“My biggest suggestion is to just go for becoming a Dental Assistant. I thought about getting into dental assisting when I was much younger, but I let fear and uncertainty in myself hold me back. Now I’m actually living my dream and I just wish I had entered the profession sooner so I could have been this happy for longer.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I think the biggest mistake a Dental Assistant can make is coming out of school and thinking that they know everything. Getting overly excited about all the new skills a Dental Assistant has learned can be easy, but don’t lose humility. Remember that the doctor who hires each Dental Assistant has been practicing in this industry much longer, so listen to what they have to say.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“A couple of questions people often don’t think of until they get into the career are: ‘Can I handle blood?’ ‘Am I squeamish?’ If you work in oral surgery, there will be blood, but blood isn’t the only thing professionals will see. They will see all levels of deterioration of the mouth caused by everything from aging naturally, to outright neglect or drug use. Some of the instances can also smell pretty bad, so make sure you have the stomach for that sort of thing.”
Why did you choose to become a Dental Assistant?
“I spent a lot of time selling insurance, and also working as a personal trainer. I learned through that time that a lot of things, like heart disease, can come from poor oral care. As cheesy as this may sound, I decided I wanted to help people get to the ‘root’ of their problems.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Tenacious. I’ve been through a lot in my life, and I have had a lot of people tell me that I am incapable and have tried to get in my way. However, I have chosen to live and succeed in spite of my past instead of letting it define me. I am successful because I am stubborn and I refuse to give up.”
*Credentialing organization: The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)