Registered Dental Assistant: Job Duties and Education Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a registered dental assistant. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about schooling, job duties and certification to find out if this is the career for you.

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A career as a registered dental assistant (RDA) requires the completion of a dental assistant program and state license or certification. Some tasks RDAs perform include completing administrative paperwork, cleaning dental equipment and assisting dentists with patients.

Essential Information

Registered dental assistants (RDAs) have often undergone more training than other dental assistants and, depending on the state in which they work, may have additional duties. In addition to performing administrative duties, helping dentists clean their equipment and providing chairside assistance, RDAs may also take X-rays, administer topical anesthetics, polish teeth and give fluoride treatments, among other extended duties. Requirements for becoming a registered dental assistant can vary from state to state, but usually include completion of an approved educational program and passing certification or licensure exams.

Required Education Completion of a state-approved dental assisting program
Other Requirements State licensure and/or Certified Dental Assistant certification
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 11% for all dental assistants
Median Salary (2018)* $38,660 annually for all dental assistants

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Registered Dental Assistant Job Duties

Dental assistants typically work chairside with patients, in dental laboratories, in dental offices and in the community. Chairside duties may include preparing cements and impressions, taking patient histories and preparing dental charts. Other office duties include sterilizing and cleaning dental equipment and supplies and managing supply inventory. In the laboratory, dental assistants may create mouth guards, orthodontic retainers, impression trays and temporary crowns. Office duties typically include confirming and scheduling appointments with patients, answering phones, managing records, processing insurance and bookkeeping. Dental assistants may also work in the community from time to time, educating the public on oral care techniques and dental health.

Dental assistants with state licensure or certification, such as registered dental assistants, have undergone additional training and may be allowed to perform a broader range of functions than other dental assistants. These expanded functions, outlined by each state, may include taking X-rays, removing sutures and dressings, polishing patients' teeth, taking impressions, giving fluoride treatments and administering topical medications.

Registered Dental Assistant Education Requirements

Some states require no formal education requirements for dental assistants. Many dental assistants are trained on the job, though others choose to enroll in dental assisting programs at a community college or trade school. However, to become registered and use the RDA credential, most states require that a prospective registered dental assistant graduate from a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). These programs generally take one year or less to complete and cumulate in a diploma or certificate. Associate's degree programs are also available and typically take two years to complete.

After graduating from an approved program, a dental assistant must pass a state examination and meet experience requirements to become registered. The type of examination is determined by the state in which the dental assistant wishes to practice. The exam may be practical, written or both. Certification options are also available. For example, the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) offers the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification, which requires three multiple-choice exams in radiation health and safety, general chair side assisting and infection control. Many states also require that registered dental assistants complete continuing education requirements in order to maintain their registration, and those with CDA certification also have to complete continuing education credits to maintain their certification.

Dentists commonly require on-the-job training even for dental assistants who have graduated from a formal dental assisting program, to familiarize new employees with individual office protocols and preferences for where their instruments and files are kept, for example. Changes in dental technology require dental assistants to undergo periodic on-the-job training to stay up-to-date with the current technology.

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

Due to the increasing demand for dental services, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that jobs for dental assistants in general will grow as much faster than the average through 2028. The BLS listed the mean annual salary of dental assistants working at the office of the dentists was $39,770, while those in outpatient care centers was $39,850, in May 2018.

With the high rate of growth expected in this field, those who complete an approved dental assistant program and obtain state licensure or certification should be competitive for jobs. Some on-the-job training is also essential, and working in the dental field requires periodic training to stay up-to-date with the latest equipment being used.

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