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How to Become a Dental Assistant in 2021 | Requirements & Salary 

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The demand for dental care is high, especially as the American population overall gets older, lives longer, and becomes increasingly sensitive to oral appearance and health.

With a dental assistant job, you get to join this important and oft-used field of health care and embark on your own career in dental health.

What a Dental Assistant Does?

certified dental assistant

Before we explain how to become a dental assistant, a primer on what you do as a dental assistant is in order.

Specifically, you play roles in the administration of the dental office and patient care.

In the former category, you make appointments, filing organizing patient records, processing bills and payments and filing insurance claims.

Dental assistants also help the dentist during the procedures and exams of patients. Your contributions to the patient's care include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Taking vital signs, such as blood pressure, pulse and temperature
  • Obtaining the patient's medical history
  • Make the patient comfortable in the chair, such as by adjusting the incline of the chair
  • Taking x-rays
  • Sterilize and order the instruments to be used
  • Hand instruments to the dentist as directed
  • Hold suction hoses that remove fluids from the mouth during the procedures
  • Ensure that the dentist can see the mouth by holding dental curing lights
  • Making notes of the procedure and reactions to the procedure by the patient
  • Take teeth impressions
  • Provide tips to patients for oral health, such as brushing flossing or using particular types of toothpaste
  • Giving post procedure care instructions to patients or their family members

You will conduct many, if not most, of these activities under a dentist’s watchful eye.

Where Do Dental Assistants Work?

dental assistants work

Look for dental assistant jobs with dentists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nine out of every 10 worked in a dentist’s office.

You might also find jobs with the Veteran’s Administration, university dental programs and even a few hospitals.

The Necessary Skills

Listen and Follow Instructions

Dentists and dental hygienists will instruct you on matters such as instruments needed during procedures, x-rays and dental impressions if your office includes a dental laboratory.

Listening skills help you understand and execute these directions, as well as insure proper insurance billing and payments and knowing when to schedule appointments.

Be Dexterous

An important facet of how to become a dental assistant consists of the ability to use your hands especially in working with scrapers, polishers and other small tools and handling teeth.

Dexterity includes grasping, manipulation and keeping your arms and hands steady.

Be Organized

Being organized helps you file and find patient records and track schedules for appointments. With organization skills, you can readily place instruments and supplies needed for procedures.

Be Personable

Patients need understanding and empathy from you during their moments of pain. 

You must demonstrate the skill of professionally responding to complaints from patients about their bills or the services rendered by the dentist, dental hygienist or others (including you) in the dental practice.

Speak and Write Well

As a dental assistant, you need to explain clearly and briefly any questions from patients about bills, appointments and any dental procedures.

You also must understand the right terminology in speaking or writing to dental insurance plans and in recording what happened during the dental implant, cleaning, root canal or examination.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Assistant?

people at dental clinic

For a few in the field, how to become a dental assistant means avoiding the classroom after high school. 

With a dentist willing to give you on-the-job training, it is possible to become a dental assistant without going to school.

If you have worked in a hospital, physician's office or medical clinic, you may already have enough experience with making appointments, record-keeping, dealing with health insurance companies and taking patients’ vital signs.

What if You Choose a Post Secondary Dental Assistant Program?

Unless you can avoid formal education to become a dental assistant, you can expect around 12 months to complete a dental assistant program.

At the end of that course of study, you will have earned a certificate or diploma from the program.

If you seek an associate’s degree in the dental assistant field, you will have two years in a community or technical college program.

According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), nearly 63 percent of dental assistants have a post-secondary certificate.

Only 12 percent have an associate’s degree, which speaks to the general rule that dental assistants do not take the two-year route.

What High School Classes Should Dental Assistants Take?

At a minimum, consider taking biology, anatomy and chemistry in high school. Typing or keyboarding also helps, as your job duties may include entering insurance codes, patient information and appointment schedules into a computer.

Why Should You Become Certified Dental Assistant?

Learn the laws of your state on how to become a dental assistant. Among the states you will find various requirements for being certified or licensed.

The applicability of these rules depend generally on the type of work you perform.

In a number of states, you must obtain a license to x-ray teeth. 

Some jurisdictions will not require a license of you to work on teeth if you do so under a dentist’s supervision.

In others, you must be licensed if you are performing cleaning or polishing teeth (even with the dentist’s supervision) or helping the dentist with procedures.

Becoming a Certified Dental Assistant

female dentist and assistant

If your jurisdiction requires certification, turn to the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB). This body confers the necessary certified status on dental assistants.

Your journey to certification starts with completion of a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association.

Upon graduation, you take an exam which tests your knowledge of:

  • General Chairside Assisting (GC): This test covers what you do in assisting a dentist performing a procedure such as a root canal, cavity-filling or application of a bridge or crown.
  • Infection Control (ICE): In this exam, you show your knowledge of personal hygiene protocols, sterilizing and handling instruments, preventing cross-contamination of instruments and equipment, and potential hazardous materials or matter.
  • Radiation Health and Safety (RHS): In this exam, you answer questions regarding the operation of x-ray equipment, safe levels of radiation, the effects of radiation and how to achieve quality and reliable results of x-rays.

Becoming Certified Entry Level Dental Assistant

Getting the full certification requires that you log 3,500 hours of experience. 

If you lack the hours, you may also become a certified National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA).

When you achieve NELDA status, you have a lure for prospective employers because you have demonstrated some command of the basic work of dental assistants.

DANB has crafted three routes to this first-level certification: 

Now that you see how to become a dental assistant, embark on this career today. 

Enroll in an accredited program, start accumulating experience and take the tests to be certified. 

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