Dental assistants play an important role in dental offices and other healthcare settings. These healthcare workers perform a wide range of tasks that involve assisting dentists and dental hygienists, along with making sure patients are comfortable and safe during their appointments. Those who want to be part of a dental team can become a dental assistant with the right training and education.

If you’re thinking about pursuing this career, knowing more about dental assistant job duties, school requirements, salary, and more can help you determine if this is a good career path for you. The following dental assistant career guide offers the information needed to better understand this type of career.

What Are Dental Assistants?

When you go to the dentist for a cleaning or other kinds of dental work, dental assistants are there to make sure you’re comfortable and prepared for your appointment. These assistants perform other tasks that help dental visits go smoothly, making them a crucial part of dental teams.

Types of Dental Assistants

Different types of dental assistant careers are available. Unregistered dental assistants or entry-level dental assistants perform basic duties and responsibilities, such as preparing patients for dental care and sterilizing instruments. A certified dental assistant (CDA) is one who has obtained certification after taking exams in radiation health and safety, general chairside assisting, and infection control offered by the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB) at the national level; the CDA is a credential recognized in most states of the U.S. You can learn more about DANB edibility requirements by visiting their website. At CHCP, once you complete the Dental Assistant Program, you will be eligible to take the certification test, which is the first step toward becoming a state-registered dental assistant.

Registered dental assistants are dental assistants who have obtained licensing within that state of employment and/or training and are allowed to perform a wider range of job duties, which could include constructing temporary crowns, taking tooth impressions, and applying fluoride. With the additional credentials, you could potentially advance your career to higher level positions. Keep in mind that specific job titles for different types of dental assistants vary from state to state.

Dental Assistant Duties and Responsibilities

Dental assistants perform tasks that benefit patients and dental offices. These assistants provide compassionate care when preparing patients for dental work or explaining treatments to them. They also help keep dental offices running without long delays or other problems that impact patient care by handling a variety of tasks, that could include  scheduling follow up appointments, processing X-rays, and passing instruments to dentists during treatments. Dental assistants help with infection control in dental offices, as well, which helps keep patients and staff safe.

Dental Assistant School Requirements

School requirements for dental assistants vary by state. Some states do not have any educational requirements for dental assistants, while others limit the tasks dental assistants can perform without specific training or certification. In some states, dental assistants can learn the skills they need with on-the-job training rather than a formal education. If you’re planning to become a dental assistant, you should make sure you’re familiar with the requirements in the state you want to work in.

Dental Assistant Classes 

The courses that dental assistants must take can vary depending on state requirements and specific school programs. However, dental assistant students can expect to take courses covering the basics of healthcare work and learn the skills for this type of career. Some classes dental assistant students often take include:

  • Dental Terminology. Dental terminology courses introduce students to basic dental terms.
  • Anatomy and Physiology. Students study the basics of anatomy and physiology, focusing on the head and neck.
  • HIPAA/OSHA/Infection Control. Topics include the spread of diseases and methods for controlling infections in healthcare settings, as well as the basics of HIPAA and OSHA.
  • Introduction to Dental Assisting. This type of course gives students an overview of dental assistant careers, including the tasks involved.
  • Preventative Dentistry. These courses introduce students to the basics of preventative dentistry, such as fluoride use and decay prevention.
  • Tooth Morphology. Topics include different types of teeth and tooth surfaces, as well as dental charting.
  • Radiology. These courses introduce students to the skills required for taking dental X-rays.
  • Medical Emergencies. Students are instructed in methods for handling medical emergencies that patients might experience.
  • Office Procedures. Since dental assisting often includes administrative tasks, these courses focus on common office procedures.
  • Dental Materials. Students are introduced to different kinds of dental materials used for dental crowns, dental impressions, and other dental treatments.
  • Dental Skills and Procedures. These courses help students practice the skills needed for assisting with dental procedures, such as preparing patients for dental care.
  • Dental Treatment Areas and Instruments. Students are introduced to dental treatment areas and clinical instruments and equipment used for dental procedures.
  • Dental Specialties. This course focuses on dentists who have additional training in nine areas of dentistry to be able to perform specialized treatments, such as orthodontics and pediatric dentistry, for example, helping students understand additional tasks that may be required on the job.

Registered Dental Assistant Requirements

During most dental assistant programs, students practice the skills needed to prepare them for their credential exams, along with any additional skills required to earn a diploma, certificate, or degree. The College of Health Care Professions helps students prepare to take the Texas Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) exam. Once students pass the exam, they can complete an application through the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners (TSBDE) and receive their RDA license in their state. This additional credential may provide them more opportunities as a dental assistant.

Dental Assistant Certification Requirements

Generally, after two years of full-time employment with a dental office, dental assistants can take the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) exam. DANB offers certification for dental assistants, which can allow them to take on additional responsibilities. Some states require certification through DANB in order to work as a dental assistant. Certification requirements vary based on the type of certification. For example, those who want to obtain certification in order to become a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) must pass three exams after graduating from a Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredited dental assisting program, complete a certain number of hours of DANB-approved work experience, and complete an externship. 

Other types of certifications that DANB offers include National Entry Level Dental Assistant, Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant, and Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant. These certifications are recognized nationally as well, should the dental assistant decide to move from one state to another.

Dental Assistant Careers

Working as a dental assistant can provide you with a career that involves caring for others. Learning more about the specific job duties and responsibilities dental assistants handle, as well as where they work and how they can advance their careers, can help you decide if you want to pursue this career path.

What Do Dental Assistants Do?

Dental assistants handle a wide range of duties and responsibilities, such as scheduling appointments and assisting with patient care. Exact job duties and responsibilities for dental assistants vary depending on where they work and what kind of training they have. In general, dental assistants work alongside dentists and dental hygienists throughout the day. Some of the tasks they handle as part of their workload could include the following:

  • Preparing dental patients for cleanings or other dental care, such as taking medical histories and checking blood pressure and other vital signs
  • Making sure patients feel comfortable before any dental work is done
  • Cleaning and sterilizing dental instruments
  • Preparing materials and instruments for dental procedures and other treatments
  • Assisting the dentist and/or hygienist chairside during dental cleanings and other procedures
  • Handing dental instruments to dentists while procedures or other treatments are being done
  • Assisting patients with payments and billing
  • Scheduling appointments, including follow-up appointments
  • Educating patients on oral care
  • Maintaining patient records
  • Exposing dental X-rays under the general supervision of a dentist
  • Handling lab tasks, such as preparing materials for dental crowns or taking tooth impressions, under the supervision of a dentist

Dental assistants with specialized training and certification can perform additional tasks, such as taking X-rays, applying sealants, applying fluoride treatment, or administering topical anesthetics.

Where Do Dental Assistants Work?

Dental assistants mainly work in dental offices. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that dental offices employ 90% of dental assistants. A much smaller number of dental assistants work in other healthcare environments. Roughly 2% work in physicians’ offices, and another 2% work in government settings, according to BLS. Some of the places dental assistants can work include:

  • Private Dental Offices. Some dental assistants work for private dental offices where they assist one or more dentists and dental hygienists with patient care and handle other day-to-day duties and responsibilities.
  • Group Dental Practices. Dental assistants can work at group dental practices with a larger number of dentists and dental hygienists. Their duties and responsibilities are generally the same as those who work for private dental offices.
  • Outpatient Centers for Dental Surgery. Dental assistants who specialize in oral surgery can work at outpatient centers for dental surgery. These dental assistants provide oral surgeons with assistance as needed, such as preparing the surgical environment for patients.
  • Hospitals. Dental assistants can work at hospitals where they assist dentists who perform oral surgeries and other procedures. Hospital jobs for dental assistants might include more patient care and fewer administrative tasks.
  • Educational Institutions. Dental assistants who are interested in educating others can work in academic institutions where they’re able to provide students with training. Others might educate students who are doing externships in dental offices. These dental assistants help students learn more about what to expect on the job.
  • Public Health Facilities. Some dental assistants work in public health where they visit underserved or low-income communities with dentists to provide dental care and education on oral health. In some cases, these assistants help dentists prepare presentations for schools, community centers, and other public health settings.

Continuing Education and Career Growth

Dental assistants have the option to continue their education and expand their career opportunities. Some might choose to become certified dental assistants or expanded function dental assistants. These career paths allow dental assistants to perform additional tasks on the job. In some cases, dental assistants might decide to advance their career rather than expand their duties and responsibilities. These assistants can earn an associate degree and complete a licensing exam to become a dental hygienist, which involves learning to handle dental cleanings and other dental care. Dental assistants can also earn a bachelor’s degree and dental school degree, then pass licensing exams in order to become a dentist.

Dental Assistant Salary

How much do dental assistants earn per year? The salary for dental assistants can vary based on many factors, such as where they work or how much experience they have. 

The job outlook for dental assistants from 2021 through 2031 is strong, and dental assistant jobs are expected to grow 8%, which is faster than the average rate for all jobs in the U.S. This amounts to roughly 44,000 dental assistant job openings. The growth in dental assistant jobs is expected to happen for a few reasons, including an increasing awareness of the connection between overall health and oral health among the general public and a growing need for dental care among aging populations. Dental assistants are also expected to be in demand throughout the next decade as workers retire and need to be replaced.

If you’re ready to begin the journey toward becoming a dental assistant or if you’re exploring options for your education, please contact The College of Health Care Professions (CHCP) for more information. We offer Dental Assistant Programs on campus in many major cities in Texas and online to help students learn the skills needed for this career. The campus-based programs are delivered in a blended format where students are on campus two days per week and perform the remainder of their work online. The online program includes both online work and in-person weekend lab classes.