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How to Become a Dental Assistant

Dental assistants handle various laboratory and patient-care tasks under the guidance of dentists. In preparation for each appointment, the assistant will pull up the patient’s records, prepare the instruments for the dental procedure, and make the dental chair comfortable for the patient.

Once things are underway, the assistant will hand instruments to the dentist and clear away fluids with the help of a suction. At wrap-up, the job involves giving advice to patients on oral hygiene and aftercare. Essentially, the assistant’s function in a dental office is similar to a nurse’s role within a doctor’s office.

Dental Assistant Job Description

Under the direction of a dentist, the dental assistant will take and process X-rays, apply rubber dams to teeth in need of treatment, administer anesthetics to patients, and clear away excess filling cement. Lab-based assistants also handle tasks like utensil cleaning, cast-teeth making, and temporary crown making. Meanwhile, office-based assistants perform duties such as handling appointments, sending bills, collecting payments, and ordering supplies.

In some states, qualifying dental assistants are also being asked to take on restorative dentistry tasks. Whether you take on a lab or office-based role in dental assisting, the duties that you perform will make it possible for the dentist to focus on the needs of patients.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

During each appointment, the dental assistant works next to the dental chair and hands the dentist tools and medications as the procedure advances. For sanitation purposes, dental assistants are required to wear gloves, eyewear, and protective gear during each procedure. An assistant must also follow safety measures when handling the X-ray machine.

When a patient is having a cavity removed, a tooth pulled out, or a set of braces attached or removed, the dental assistant plays the crucial role of right-hand man or woman to the dentist. Thanks to the presence of lab and office assistants, work gets done and patients get treated with far greater efficiency at dental offices from coast to coast.

The Work Hours of Dental Assistants

There’s a roughly 50/50 split between dental assistants who work full time (35-40 hours per week) and those who work part time or on flux. The hours can vary from office to office and some assistants must be on hand during weekends and evenings. Some assistants work at two or more dental offices and schedule their hours at one around their shift at the other.

For people who want to earn good, reliable money within a reasonable number of weekly hours, dental assisting is one of the more opportune careers in today’s job market. Part-time work as a dental assistant can also provide both a healthy income and flexible schedule for ambitious, driven people who moonlight as actors, authors, artists, and musicians.

Dental Assistant Training

Dental assistant in trainingA person can get dental assistant training in programs offered at community colleges, technical institutes, career schools, and even in the military. For those in high school with an interest in this line of work, classes in biology and chemistry can serve as launching pads to careers in a dental office. In the realm of higher education, the grounds for dental assistant work have been fertile. In 2006, 269 applicable training programs were green-lighted by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation.

The curriculum covered in dental assisting programs varies from school to school, but students are generally trained in the following areas:

  • Patient care – One of the main functions of a dental assistant is to ensure that patients are comfortable with a given procedure, but this takes solid interpersonal skills. Therefore, students in dental assisting programs are usually taught how to convey warmth, encourage positive feelings, and maintain a calm manner in the presence of patients.
  • Safety and hygiene – It’s the dental assistant’s duty to ensure the dental tools and overall environment are sterile at all times. To that end, students are trained in sanitation protocols to guarantee that contaminated fluids never leak and that all instruments are cleaned between each appointment.
  • Dental radiography – Another crucial thing for dental assistants to master is the handling of X-ray machines. Students are taught how to operate the equipment, prepare the patients, and capture X-ray images for dentists to study.

Additionally, students in dental assisting programs are taught the ins and outs of office management and how to instruct patients regarding follow-up care and oral hygiene.

Gaining Experience as a Dental Assistant

Dental assistant training also often occurs on the job where the dentist or fellow assistants will teach the newcomer about the tools, terms, and duties of this line of work. Throughout the course of this experience, the new assistant will learn how a dental office is run and how to deal with patients. Some of the tasks can be mastered easily, but others take time and practice for most newcomers to get the hang of properly.

For instance, dental lab equipment will often have elaborate functions that are challenging to memorize and master manually. With chemicals and medications, complex protocols generally apply because everything has to be sealed, labeled, and stored in a certain way.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Regardless of whether one has completed a dental assistant course, on-the-floor training is usually required for a period of time at most dental offices. This allows a new assistant to adjust to the unique working style and office-management protocol of the dentist in question. For instance, a particular dentist might have his or her own method of filing information on patients, and each new assistant needs to learn this to ensure that operations go smoothly. Technology in the world of dentistry also goes through changes and assistants need to be brought up to speed as new dental equipment surpasses the old.

In most dental offices, an incoming assistant will need to be trained in the following things:

  • How to enter appointment schedules and patient information into the computer system
  • How to handle, open, label, seal, and store dental medications
  • How to access, arrange, organize, and file away important patient information
  • How to handle, sterilize, and arrange the tools used in dental procedures
  • How to operate the complex machinery that dentists use during checkups
  • How to assist the dentist through the various functions of each open-mouth procedure

Whether a dental office hires you to assist with functions in the lab, office, or both, it might take several weeks or more to overcome the learning curve and master your newfound responsibilities as a dental assistant.

Licensure for Dental Assistants

The range of duties performed by dental assistants are restricted in most states. In some states, one must first pass a written exam to obtain a license; in other states, aspiring dental assistants must complete 12-hour courses to qualify for state licensure. Some of these states also require that assistants take courses on an ongoing basis to remain qualified for licensure. Only a small number of states permit dental assistants to handle any responsibility assigned by a dentist.

Qualification Skill Tests for Dental Assistants

The official standards for advanced dental assistant work also vary from state to state. Some states require dental assistants to undergo radiological training before performing such procedures. In at least 30 states, these standards can be met by completing tests in radiation by the Dental Assisting National Board. To qualify for this test, a candidate must graduate from a school accredited by the American Dental Association. Alternately, one can qualify by having at least two years of full-time or four years of part-time work experience in a dental setting.

The Career Outlook for Dental Assistants

Employment figures are expected to rise 29% over the prior decade by 2016In 2006, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) national research found that 280,000 dental assistant positions were currently being filled. Most of these positions were held in dental offices, but some of them were held in local, state, and federal government.

More than a third of these jobs were part time and some assistants worked at two or more offices. Currently, the dental assistant career outlook is high with job growth in this field among the fastest of all professions. Employment figures are expected to rise 29 percent over the prior decade by 2016.

Growing Demand for Dental Assistants

In the coming years, demand for dental work will be fueled by three factors: rising population levels, a growing demand for preventative tooth care among young people, and a trend towards longer tooth retention among older generations. By the same token, the older wave of dentists that prefer to work alone will gradually exit the field. Taking their place will be the newer dentists that generally prefer dividing tasks with office assistants. As dental workloads increase, dentists will need even more assistance with office tasks as they themselves concentrate on the more elaborate procedures of dentistry.

How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?

Expected Salary for Dental Assistant Careers

In 2012, the BLS found that dental assistants earned an annual median income of $34,500. Therefore, the top 10 highest earners in the field made at least $47,580, while the bottom 10 percent made under $23,550. Earning levels vary based on state and city, and largely boil down to the income levels and population densities of local markets.

Big cities tend to offer higher pay, with San Francisco paying salaries as high as $60,000. The top five states with the highest dental assistant salary are New Hampshire, Minnesota, Alaska, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, all of which pay a median average above the $40,000 mark.

Dental Assistant Programs at Vista College

A career as a dental assistant is one of the best options if you wish to work as a team player in the field of health care. Dental assistant training can give you the necessary skills and qualifications for this rewarding and financially fruitful line of work. One of the best ways to gain these skills is by earning a Dental Assistant Diploma and Associate of Applied Science degree from Vista College.

The Dental Assistant Diploma

In less than 12 months, the Vista College Dental Assistant training program will give you the skills and experience dentists demand when hiring assistants. The program covers topics like dental materials, dental procedures, dental radiography, dental sciences, dental office management, and infection control.

Throughout each course, you will not only gain knowledge and expertise of the duties involved with dental assisting, you will also develop an understanding of the complex functions performed in dentistry. Upon completion of the prerequisites, you could qualify for a dental externship, which might lead to a long-term job opportunity. Becoming a dental assistant could even be the stepping stone to a career as a dental hygienist.

The Skills You Gain in the Dental Assisting Program

After you earn your qualifications, you will be ready for an entry-level position in the field of dental assisting, where you will:

  • Safeguard the health of patients by keeping the dental equipment sterilized
  • Arrange the instruments to be used in each dental procedure
  • Ensure that the records of patients are updated and relevant
  • Comfort each patient as he or she undergoes a dental procedure
  • Share tips on oral hygiene and dental aftercare with patients

Once you become a dental assistant, your work will involve various tasks at the side of the dental chair, including coronal polishing and the application of fluoride, matrix bands, and rubber dams. You will also help calm patients who might feel uneasy about a dental procedure. That alone could be the most important of all functions that you will perform as a dental assistant because while many people are apprehensive about dental appointments, everyone needs tooth care on a semi-annual basis. In addition to helping dentists with patients and instruments, you will also handle some of the business-related tasks of running a dental office.

Earn an AAS in Dental Assisting

The Dental Assisting AAS degree program at Vista College expands upon the topics of the Diploma – sciences, materials, radiography – and also covers topics like office administration, database management, and customer service.

Over an 80-week period, the AAS program will also give you real-life experience in the field by providing you the chance to work in a dental office externship. To accommodate a variety of schedules, daytime and evening classes are available. The small size of each class allows instructors to offer each student the utmost attention. Since our instructors have actually worked in the field of dental care, they’re able to impart professional, real-world insights to you as a student.

Further Help From Vista College

how to become a dental assistantOnce you earn your AAS degree, you will be fully qualified for work as a dental assistant, but it could still be somewhat challenging to land your first job in the field. Therefore, upon completion of your degree, Vista College offers career services assistance, where we instruct you on things like how to find a job, compose a resume, write a cover letter, and handle an interview.

For more than a quarter century, Vista College has been helping ambitious people gain the skills that are necessary in the search for lucrative careers. To find out more about our Dental Assistant Diploma and AAS programs and how they can open doors into this satisfying field, contact our admissions department and speak with one of our representatives.

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