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Dental assistant showing boy how to clean teeth properly

Think about the last time you went to the dentist. Do you remember who greeted you at your appointment or walked you back to the exam room, asking follow-up questions from your last visit? The exam room was likely prepped perfectly for the visit, too.

While you may have been preoccupied worrying about cavities or whether you remembered to floss that day, your dental assistant was focused on making your experience as seamless as possible. Those efforts include arriving early to sterilize instruments, reviewing the procedures for the day, and keeping track of the patient’s medical history.

If you are interested in dental care but are not sure if a position as a dental hygienist is the right one for you, consider becoming a dental assistant. Below, you will learn about a dental assistant’s daily tasks, responsibilities, and skills. Plus, you will discover what it takes to become a dental assistant. Keep reading to discover whether becoming a dental assistant is the right career choice for you.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Dental assistants have important duties in the exciting field of dentistry.

The responsibilities of a dental assistant may vary by office, but usually include the following:

  • Checking in patients and getting then settled for an appointment
  • Assisting the dentist in treatment procedures
  • Prepping and developing dental X-rays
  • Maintaining strict sterilization and infection control procedures
  • Preparing and sterilizing dental instruments
  • Educating patients on proper oral hygiene
  • Teaching patients about post-procedure care
  • Performing office management tasks, such as scheduling appointments and record-keeping

Because the daily responsibilities of a dental assistant are so broad, dental assistants must have a wide variety of skills.

What Skills Does a Dental Assistant Need?

If a career as a dental assistant sounds interesting to you, you may be curious about what skills the job requires. Because the daily responsibilities of a dental assistant are so broad, dental assistants must have a wide variety of skills. Specifically, dental assistants must develop strong technical, people, and administrative abilities.

Learn more about these skillsets below.

1. Technical Skills

One of a dental assistant’s main duties is helping the dentist perform procedures. This responsibility includes working closely with dentists to complete tasks like fillings and crowns. To be successful in these tasks, dental assistants must have the following technical skills:

  • Knowledge of advanced dental procedures
  • The ability to take X-rays, read a patient’s blood pressure, and perform dental impressions
  • Knowledge of dental materials and how to maintain the equipment
  • The ability to spot and respond quickly to a dental emergency
  • CPR certification

To perform more advanced functions, such as coronal polishes, certain states require dental assistants to be certified or licensed.

2. People Skills

Because not everyone loves going to the dentist, dental assistants must be able to put patients’ nerves at ease. As the first person patients encounter when they get to the office, a dental assistant needs to be welcoming and compassionate. Being a friendly face requires the following people skills:

  • Making patients feel comfortable while preparing them for their check-up or procedure
  • Helping patients remain calm throughout treatment
  • Being a good listener
  • Inquiring about a patient’s medical history
  • Being a good communicator, including providing oral hygiene and care instructions at the end of each appointment

These interpersonal skills are crucial to a dental assistant’s role. They impress upon the patient your level of care and consideration, but they also illustrate the commitment you have for your practice and the experiences of your patients.

3. Administrative Skills

In addition to working with patients, a dental assistant will have to perform some administrative tasks around the office. While each office will involve different administrative duties, most will include the following:

  • Working on office management tasks, such as computer-based duties
  • Monitoring supplies by taking inventory and ordering more when necessary
  • Scheduling patients’ appointments, making reminder calls, and addressing any billing issues

Although the administrative side of being a dental assistant might not sound particularly exciting, it is a necessary part of the job. Having good office skills makes any dental assistant all the more successful in their field.

Dental Assistants vs. Dental Hygienists and Lab Technicians

To the average patient, the differences between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist may not be extremely obvious. Both hygienists and assistants care for the patient or may assist the dentist in one way or another.

While the differences may not be obvious to a patient, there are important distinctions between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist. If you are attracted to the field of dentistry, you may also be interested in a position as a dental lab technician. To sort through the differences, you can explore the job responsibilities, years of education, salary benefits, and average hours worked for each position.

Job Responsibilities

Check out the general job responsibilities for dental assistants, dental hygienists, and dental lab technicians below.

Dental Assistants

A dental assistant’s responsibilities can be generally described as “manual.” This means their daily tasks mostly revolve around preparatory measures: sterilizing equipment, reviewing medical documents, assisting during examinations, and prepping patients.

Dental Hygienists

For dental hygienists, their responsibilities can be described as “specialized.” While these may vary by state and educational background, dental hygienists can be responsible for:

  • Assessing patient’s oral tissues and overall dental health
  • Developing patient treatment plans and discussing possible options for care
  • Polishing patient’s teeth and removing deposits
  • Processing dental X-rays
  • Applying cavity-preventative agents

Dental Lab Technicians

If a dental assistant’s responsibilities are manual and a dental hygienist’s are specialized, the dental lab technician’s responsibilities fall somewhere in the middle of the two. Dental lab technicians primarily work directly with the dentist, utilizing the patient’s impressions — also known as molds — to create:

  • Full dentures
  • Removable partial dentures, or fixed bridges
  • Crowns
  • Veneers
  • Orthodontic appliances and splits

While responsibilities may vary, there isn’t always a firm line of distinction. For instance, some dental assistants may remove sutures, apply anesthetics or create molds. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) can provide information on what responsibilities dental assistants can perform in each state and what requirements are needed beforehand.

Years of Education Required to Work in Dentistry

Depending on what role you want to fill in the dental industry, the years of schooling you need will vary. Below are the general program timelines for dental assistants, dental hygienists, and dental lab technicians.

Dental Assistants

When discussing education, most dental assistants enroll in an educational program for one to two years. Depending on the practice, dental assistants may be required to receive a Dental Assistant Diploma or a Dental Assistant Associate of Applied Sciences (AAS degree). Additionally, dental assistants may choose to sit for the Certified Dental Assistant Exam, offered by DANB.

Dental Hygienists

For dental hygienists, the number of years enrolled fluctuates between two to six. At a minimum, dental hygienists must graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program and become licensed in their practicing state. Additionally, dental hygienists who have successfully completed an associate’s program have the opportunity to pursue a Bachelor’s and/or Master’s degree in Dental Hygiene.

Dental Lab Technician

Depending on the dental office, many dental lab technicians gain their education through direct work experience. Formal training programs vary in length and level of skill. Additionally, Dental Lab Technicians may earn their certification through the Certified Dental Technician exam, offered by the National Association of Dental Laboratories.

Hours on the Job for Dental Assistants, Dental Hygienists, and Dental Lab Technicians

Below are the typical schedules for dental assistants, dental hygienists, and dental lab technicians.

Hours on the Job - Dental Assistants: 35-40 hours/week; Dental Hygienists: 40 hours/week; Dental Lab Technicians: 40 hours/week

Dental Assistants

Most dental assistants hold flexible schedules, with many working part-time. If you are pursuing other certifications or responsibilities, the ability to work part-time is an enticing benefit. For dental assistants holding full-time positions, 35-40 hour workweeks are common and may include Saturday or evening shifts.

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists have similarly flexible schedules, with roughly half working part-time. It is usually common for a dental hygienist to work for more than one dentist.

Dental Lab Technicians

Depending on the size of the lab, most salaried technicians’ schedules include 40 hours per week. Self-employed technicians generally work longer hours. Long hours have to do with the delicate and time-consuming nature of the job.

The job market for dental assistants is projected to grow by 7 percent between 2019 and 2029. This growth rate is far above the average for other occupations.

The Job Market

The field of dental assisting may be one of the fastest-growing health care careers in the upcoming years. In fact, the job market for dental assistants is projected to grow by 7 percent between 2019 and 2029. This growth rate is far above the average for other occupations.

While a dental assistant’s exact earnings may vary by experience, performance, responsibility, geographic area, and tenure, there is adequate job security for those in dental assisting. Because dental health is essential, there will always be a nationwide demand for qualified dental assistants.

Specifically, the five states below offer dental assistants the best combination of opportunity, salary and benefits:

  1. Minnesota
  2. Oregon
  3. Alaska
  4. Washington
  5. New Hampshire

After completing your dental assistant program, you may find success while looking for available positions in these states.

What Does a Dental Assistant Program Involve?

What Does a Dental Assistant Program Involve?

A dental assistant program will teach students the basic skills needed to join the workforce. Classes included in dental assistant programs typically involve the following:

  • Oral anatomy: Learning what normal and abnormal anatomy looks like for the oral cavity and facial structure is essential for dental assistants. This topic may also cover mastication, anesthesia, and occlusion.
  • Dental equipment: Of course, dental assistants will need to have a working knowledge of dental materials, their properties, and how to use each tool properly. These materials include porcelain, cement, bonding agents, implants, and metals.
  • Basic communication skills: Any direct care provider needs to learn professional and compassionate communication. Dental assistants will need to learn effective communication methods that enhance patient comfort and confidence.
  • Radiography: Dental assistant students also receive training on the proper technique for positioning patients for X-rays and how to perform digital dental radiography and X-rays, including differentiating between usable and unusable images.
  • Dental assisting clinicals: Clinicals provide dental assistant students with critical real-world experience. This hands-on part of the program enables students to develop their professional and ethical assisting skills under the supervision of a licensed professional.

Become a Dental Assistant at Vista College

With flexible career programs with day and night schedules and classes starting every five weeks, we are making it simple to start your journey towards a career as a dental assistant. Taught by real-world expert instructors, our program offers hands-on learning ensuring that our students are fully equipped to deal with the real situations they will face in the field. With small class sizes, students can take comfort knowing they won’t be lost in the crowd.

Dental Assistant Diploma

Our dental assistant training program will take you through classroom instruction and real-world practical experience, all in less than one year. The certified dental assistant program includes instruction in:

  • Dental Sciences
  • Practical Infection Control
  • Dental Materials
  • Preventative Dentistry
  • Dental Radiography
  • Dental Office Management
  • Dental Procedures

After completing the prerequisite course, students will be eligible for an externship in a dental office. Externships are a great way to get your foot in the door and experience a real-life practice. Better yet, a strong externship may lead to a job offer.

Take the Next Step on Your Path to Becoming a Dental Assistant

If you are ready to start your dental assistant career, learn more about the Dental Assistant Diploma Program at Vista College. Our courses provide all the information, training, and hands-on experience you will need to be ready for your first day on the job. In our classes, you will learn practical skills, such as sterilization, proper use, and maintenance of dental equipment.

While our programs can prepare you for your next step into the exciting field of dental assisting, we will also help connect you with your next opportunity. Upon completion of your Dental Assistant Diploma, you can also get assistance from our Career Services team. We will help you prepare your resume and cover letters, develop a job search strategy, and practice your interview skills.

If you are ready for a new career in dental assistance, Vista College is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about our Dental Assistant Diploma Program.

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