If you are considering a career as a dental assistant, there are a few things you should know before jumping in and trying to get that first job. Dental assistants are not the same as dental hygienists. Assistants help dentists either in the exam room or by performing basic office duties. In many cases, you can become a dental assistant without any official training, though certification and a license can increase both the number of duties you can perform and your salary.
Typical duties of a dental assistant include preparing the examination room for a patient. The assistant is usually responsible for sterilizing any equipment to be used during the exam and for making sure the proper tools are laid out for the dentist to use. Before a patient comes in, the assistant may need to go over her chart and make sure all her medical records are in place. During and after the exam, the assistant may be responsible for updating the patient's records.
As a dental assistant, you may help a dentist during an exam by handing him the proper tools or by holding the suction hose in a patient's mouth. It may be your responsibility to get the patient situated into the chair and inform her of any required follow-up care. Depending on your level of training and the state you live in, you may also take sutures out of a patient's mouth or file down excess cement after a patient receives a filling.
Some dental assistants also work in a laboratory or have office duties. If you work in a lab, you may make temporary crowns from impressions of a patient's teeth or construct retainers. You may have to work the front desk at the office and schedule patient's appointments. Some assistants are also responsible for billing and ordering supplies for the office.
If you are a licensed dental assistant, you may have extra responsibilities, depending on the state you live in. You may be able to perform x-rays or give a patient topical anesthesia. Some licensed assistants can give fluoride treatments and polish a patient's teeth.
Work Setting and Schedule
As a dental assistant, you'll most likely work a full-time schedule, between 35 and 40 hours a week. About one third of assistants work less than 35 hours per week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In some cases, a dental assistant may split her time between more than one dental office. If you get a job at a dentist office that is open on weekends or later in the evening, you may have to work Saturdays or evening shifts. Some dental offices are open 24-hours a day and may schedule assistants for second or third shifts.
Usually, dental offices are clean and comfortable spaces to work in. You may have to spend a lot of time on your feet as an assistant, though a portion of the job is spent sitting down, especially if you work in the front of the office. Assistants usually have to wear appropriate clothing or uniforms, such as scrubs. When working with patients, you will most likely have to wear a mask and gloves. You may need to wear protective gear when taking x-rays.
Education and Certification
You may be able to learn the skills needed to be a dental assistant on the job. In the United States, you do not need to complete a training course to work as an assistant. If you decide to go to school, you may wish to enroll in a program approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. An approved dental assistant program will provide both classroom and pre-clinical training. Most programs take about a year to finish. At the end of the program, you'll earn a certificate.
To perform some duties as a dental assistant, you will need to earn a license. The requirements vary by state, but in most cases you will have to take a few courses and pass an exam. You can become a Certified Dental Assistant after passing an exam and completing a certificate at an approved school. In lieu of formal training, you need two years of full-time on-the-job experience.
The average hourly wage for a dental assistant in the United States was $16.41 in 2010. The median annual salary was $33,470. Typically, dental assistants who work full-time receive health benefits, such as insurance, from their employers. Paid vacation time is also common.
Employment of dental assistants is expected to grow over the next decade. The rate of growth should be faster than for other occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Younger dentists are expected to be more willing to hire assistants than dentists who are near retirement.