Dental Office Assistant: Employment Info & Requirements

Dental office assistants, sometimes called dental assistants, work closely with dentists and perform administrative, technical, treatment and other duties to allow dentists to work more efficiently. Learn about the educational requirements, necessary skills, salary potential and job outlook for this career.

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Career Definition for a Dental Office Assistant

The duties of a dental office assistant can vary from state to state depending on regulations, but they generally involve greeting patients and making them comfortable, administrative duties in the dental office, sterilization and setup of dental tools, cleanup of the examination room and assisting the dentist in various procedures. In some states, allowable duties for a dental assistant can also include taking x-rays and advising patients on dental hygiene and post-surgical care.

Education High school diploma and certificate from ADA-accredited dental assisting program
Job Skills Strong administrative and communication skills, ability to execute infection control protocols
Median Salary (2015)* $35,980
Job Growth (2014-2024)* 18%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Required Education

A high school diploma is usually required, along with a certificate, the test for which can only be taken after passing a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) training course accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA). Some states also require registration or licensing. Training to be a dental office assistant can sometimes be on the job, but the quickest route to certification is through an accredited community college or trade school program, which can be completed in six months to a year. Once the course has been completed, prospective dental office assistants are allowed to take the test for certification. On-the-job-trainee dental assistants have to work in a dental office for two years prior to taking the test for certification. According to the ADA, there are approximately 270 accredited dental assistant training programs in the U.S.

Skills Required

In addition to the skills needed to assist dentists in various procedures (which vary from state to state), dental office assistants need strong administrative and communication skills, since they may need to calm anxious patients or tend to patients just out of surgery. In addition, dental assistants must be able to follow and, in some cases, establish infection control protocols for the office to prevent the transfer of infections from patient to patient or patient to staff.

Career and Economic Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job prospects for dental office assistants are excellent, with a faster-than-average growth rate of 18% expected in the period between 2014 and 2024. In part, this is because the demand for dental work is increasing, and practices commonly hire many assistants to do check-up work so that dentists can focus their time on advanced procedures. As of 2015, wages for dental office assistants varied greatly across the country, with the median annual wage resting at $35,980.

Alternate Career Options

Career options in similar fields include:

Medical Assistant

For those interested in a different type of health care setting, the career of medical assistant might be appealing. No formal educational requirements exist, though high school or postsecondary courses in anatomy and biology could be helpful; many learn the skills through on-the-job training. The BLS predicts a 23% increase in jobs from 2014 to 2024. The BLS reported a median salary of $30,590 for medical assistants in 2015.

Pharmacy Technician

Although training requirements vary by state, many of these techs learn the skills on the job, and some earn certificates in community college and vocational school programs. The BLS predicts a faster-than-average job growth of 9% from 2014 to 2024 for this career, which reportedly paid a median annual wage of $30,410 in 2015.

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