Dental assistants care for patients in dental offices by setting up the room for each appointment, taking X-rays, preparing the patient for procedures, taking impressions, assisting the dentist during procedures, documenting each visit, and more. Dental hygienists, on the other hand, clean and examine teeth and provide educational information to patients.

What Qualifications Do You Need to be a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants typically earn a post-secondary certificate and complete licensing requirements before they're able to work as a state registered dental assistant (RDA). In order to reach that point, there are some goals you can set along the way.

First, earning your high school diploma or GED as dental assistant programs will require you to have a minimum of a GED for entry into the program. Taking classes like biology, chemistry, anatomy, and health sciences in high school can help you better prepare for post-secondary coursework. As your high school graduation nears, you can begin applying for dental assistant programs. Take special care to ensure the program you enroll in is accredited in your state of residence.

Once you complete the dental assistant program, you can apply for a license to begin your career as a dental assistant, caring for patients in general dentistry or specialty practices, such as orthodontics, oral surgery, or pediatric dentistry, or other settings working with a dentist or team of dentists. 

Dental Assistant Skills

Knowing which skills are needed to be a dental assistant can help you determine whether your interests and skills are well-aligned for a career in this field, as well as help you focus on skills to grow and develop while you plan for your future. Aside from being skilled at using your hands, dental assistants should possess the following skills:

1. Active listening

As you work with patients every day, it's important to give them your full attention, take time to understand what they're sharing with you, ask appropriate questions, and avoid interrupting. Dental assistants must listen to complex patient experiences, like, "It hurts when I drink cold water but not when I bite down on it." Dental assistants must also ask clarifying questions and make inferences based on the information shared.

2. Speaking

Communication skills are important in this field. During the course of your work, you'll be responsible for ensuring patients feel welcome and know exactly what to expect from the beginning of their appointment until the end. Dental assistants communicate verbally with patients over the phone, who may call in to describe a problem they're having, and patients in the chair, who may be nervous and wanting to know what to expect throughout their procedure.

3. Reading comprehension

You'll be responsible for reading patients’ medical history and chart notes to ensure the care provided is appropriate for the patient. Additionally, dental assistants must stay up-to-date with industry changes and recommendations by reading new research and reports and/or attending continuing education courses. Understanding written communication in work-related documents is critical in this field of work.

4. Active learning

As research and technological advances continue, best practices in dentistry change and evolve. Dental assistants are responsible for being open to new information, staying well-informed of industry changes, and sometimes even making recommendations for the practice.

5. Instructing

One of the most important components of comprehensive dental care is education, and dental assistants play an important role when it comes to educating patients. Dental assistants often  teach patients how to care for their teeth after their appointments—whether orthodontic, endodontic, prosthodontic, or general restoration.

6. Monitoring

During the course of any procedure, the dental assistant is monitoring to anticipate the needs of both the patient and the dentist. The dental assistant’s goal is to provide the instruments and resources needed at exactly the right time.

7. Service orientation

This skill speaks to an active desire to help others. Those who work in healthcare tend to have a need to help others.

8. Social perceptiveness

Interpersonal skills are important in dental assisting. Those who are socially perceptive understand social cues, tend to be able to interpret the reactions of others, and can adjust their approach to the audience. Dental assistants work with a diverse audience. They may assist with a five-year-old’s sealants and then a 90-year-old's extraction less than an hour later. They treat patients from all backgrounds, and it helps to be culturally competent to ensure every patient feels comfortable.

9. Complex problem solving

As is the case throughout healthcare, not every dental appointment goes as planned. Sometimes the patient experiences anxiety, the crown doesn't fit, an instrument breaks, or an appointment is longer than expected, and the dental assistant (in collaboration with the dentist) is required to problem-solve in the moment to ensure the best possible outcome.

10. Writing

Dental assistants typically document patient visits through medical records. This includes sharing a narrative of the work that was completed, any medications that were administered during the procedure, risks that were addressed, future work that needs to be completed, education provided, and more. Communicating effectively through writing is critical for appropriate record keeping.

Dental Assisting Program at CHCP

The Dental Assistant Certificate Program at CHCP offers blended learning, so you can complete your classroom learning online and your hands-on training in person at our Austin, Dallas, Ft. Worth, and Houston-Med Center, Northwest Houston, Southwest Houston, McAllen, or South San Antonio campuses.

Both the day and evening track programs take as few as 36 weeks to complete.

For added flexibility, our Dental Assisting Certificate Program is also offered online, taking as few as 48 weeks to complete. Either way, it’s possible to begin working as a dental assistant in about a year! Courses include topics like dental materials, dental skills and procedures, treatment areas and instruments, and more.

Ready to start your educational training to become a dental assistant? Learn more at The College of Health Care Professions today!