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Dental Assistants: Job Description and Requirements

Learn the education, training and licensure requirements to become a dental assistant. Find out about job duties, employment outlook and alternative career options.

Career Definition of a Dental Assistant

Dental assistants work under the supervision of a licensed dentist and assist dentists with clinical, laboratory and administrative tasks. Dental assistants most often work in dentists' offices, but can also work in hospitals, clinics or dental schools. Their job duties include preparing examination rooms, tools and supplies. They also assist dentists during procedures, like filling cavities or performing root canals. In addition, dental assistants may process X-rays, make molds and advise patients about dental care and hygiene. The administrative tasks performed by dental assistants include appointment setting, billing and record keeping. Weekend work is sometimes required, and part-time work is relatively common.

Education Requirements vary per state; on-the-job training or postsecondary training in dental assisting are options
Professional CredentialsStates may require licensure, certification or registration
Job Skills Oral & written communication, organizational, administrative, interpersonal and computer skills
Median Salary (2015) $35,980 per year (all dental assistants)
Job Outlook (2014-2024)18% growth (all dental assistants)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Required Education

Education requirements for dental assistants varies by state, with some states requiring students complete an accredited program and take a state test. Accredited dental assisting programs, often offered at community or technical colleges, can take between one and two years to complete. These programs include courses in basic dental assisting, oral health, patient relations and radiology procedures. Dental assistants who seek to become certified must take the CDA® exam offered by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CoDA).

Certification and Licensure

Dental assistants earn certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). This organization offers a variety of different certifications, including the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA®), Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA®), Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA®) and Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant certifications (CRFDA®). Certification exams have differing eligibility requirements, but all require current CPR certification.

Skills Required

Dental assistants need organizational skills, administrative skills, computer skills and interpersonal skills. They also need to follow oral and written instructions and be able to communicate clearly and effectively with both patients and dentists.

Career and Economic Outlook

Dental assistants can look forward to a very positive career outlook. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the number of jobs for dental assistants to increase by 18% from 2014-2024. The BLS projects this faster-than-average growth based on an anticipated increase in patients requiring intensive dental care. The BLS reports that dental assistants earned a median annual salary of $35,980 as of May 2015.

Alternative Career Options

Additional career opportunities for this field may include:

Medical Assistants

Like dental assistants, medical assistant's duties include both administrative and clinical tasks, but in a healthcare facility, such as a physician's office. For example, medical assistants may make appointments or take patients' blood pressure. Duties may depend on the type of healthcare facility. Although formal education requirements exist for medical assistants, many learn on the job. Medical assistants may become certified through several organizations, and the BLS reports that employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants. According to the BLS, medical assistants earned a median annual salary of $30,590 as of May 2015. Additionally, the BLS projects jobs for medical assistants to grow at a much faster-than-average pace of 23% over the 2014-2024 decade.

Occupational Therapy Assistants

Those who like working with patients may prefer the job of occupational therapy assistant. These assistants work under the direction of occupational therapists and help patients learn to complete every-day tasks and perform therapeutic exercises. Other duties may include filling out forms and other related clerical tasks. Occupational therapy assistants typically complete a 2-year education program. Additionally, most states require these assistants to obtain a state-issued license. The BLS reports that jobs for occupational therapy assistants are expected increase by 40%, a much-faster-than- average rate, during the 2014-2024 decade. The BLS also reports that these workers earned a median annual salary of $54,520 as of May 2015.

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