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Becoming a Dental Assistant: The Career That Makes Everyone Smile

Posted Monday, Dec 4, 2017 by Altierus

If you’ve ever pictured yourself working in the dental industry but haven’t wanted to invest the amount of time and money it would take to become a full-fledged dentist, you still have options. There are a number of different career paths you can go down that could make it possible for you to work in the industry and give patients the confidence to smile again. One career track within the industry that shows steady growth over the next few years is that of the dental assistant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 19% from 2016 to 2026,* which is much faster than average when compared to all occupations.

In this article, we’ll provide a brief overview about the roles and responsibilities of dental assistants, how much they typically make each year, and what skills are needed in order to build a successful career in the field.

What dental assistants do

Dental assistants perform a wide range of critical roles in dental offices. Although duties may vary by state and by office, patient care is the main focus and priority for every dental assistant working in the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental assistants are typically responsible for some or all of the following duties:

  • Helping patients feel comfortable and ready for exams and procedures
  • Preparing work areas for exams and procedures
  • Sterilizing dental instruments and handing them to dentists during procedures
  • Processing X-rays and completing lab tasks
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Keeping up-to-date records of patient care
  • Working with patients on billing and payment
  • Talking with patients about oral hygiene and oral care

In some states, dental assistants may also have the opportunity to perform various sealant, polishing, and fluoride application procedures. For all duties and responsibilities described, dental assistants work under the direction and supervision of dentists and dental hygienists.

How much dental assistants make

When trying to decide whether the dental assistant career path is right for you, it’s important to take compensation into consideration. In addition to choosing a career that aligns with your interests and passions, you should also pick a path that will ultimately meet your standard of living needs and financial planning goals. The median annual salary for a dental technician was $36,940 as of May 2016. The lowest 10% or entry-level salary for a dental technician is less than $25,460.*

While most dental assistants work in full-time roles and receive annual wages that reflect the numbers outlined above, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nearly 1 in 3 professionals worked in a part-time capacity in 2016.

Skills you need to be successful

As with any type of career or role, there are certain skills and qualities that can help you thrive as a dental assistant. In order to be successful, most dental assistants need to excel at:

  • Dexterity: Dental assistants are often tasked with preparing, sterilizing, and handling dental instruments on a daily basis. To be effective in this role, you should feel confident working with your hands in a number of different ways.
  • Active listening: Dental assistants are care providers. They’re tasked with educating patients, listening to concerns, answering questions, and providing comfort during times when a patient is in distress. To be successful in this role, you need to excel as a communicator and active listener.
  • Organization: To effectively assist dentists and manage patient care, individuals in this profession also need to be experts when it comes to organization and paying attention to small details. On any given day, a dental assistant is tasked with a number of responsibilities where strong organization skills come into play, such as updating patient records, educating patients about post-op oral care, cleaning and preparing a number of different dental procedure instruments, and organizing areas in preparation for exams and procedures.
  • Critical thinking: Dental assistants also have to be able to think quickly and logically on their feet. Each day, they are presented with new challenges and situations that require them to address problems and come up with solutions that meet the needs and requirements of both dentists and patients.
  • Collaboration: Dental assistants often act as the middle person between dentists, dental office staff, and patients. In order to thrive in this role, you need to feel comfortable and confident collaborating and communicating with anyone and everyone who comes into contact with your dental office and approaches you for help.
  • Empathy: Going to the dentist can be a scary experience for some people. As a dental assistant, it’s your job to empathize with patients and help them overcome any fears or reservations they may be experiencing when they walk through the door.

How advanced education can help

If you’re interested in becoming a dental assistant but you’re unsure of the education requirements that you’ll need to meet first, review the guidelines that apply to the state you’re living in. While some states do not require any sort of formal advanced education in order to become a dental assistant, many others do.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “states that allow assistants to perform expanded duties, such as coronal polishing, require that they be licensed, registered, or hold certifications from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).”

To earn a certification from the DANB, you’ll have to pass an exam, and prove that you received education and ultimately graduated from an accredited program.

Even if advanced education isn’t required in your area, it may still be worth pursuing if you’re serious about becoming a dental assistant. Graduating from a Dental Assistant program will not only provide you with the hands-on training, experience, and skills you need to be successful, it can also help you differentiate yourself from other less qualified candidates when applying for positions at dental offices.

Pursue a career as a dental assistant

Now that you know what goes into being a dental assistant, it’s up to you to decide if it’s the right career path for you. Take some time to consider the type of work you’d be doing, the compensation you’d receive, and the skills and training you’d need to be successful.

If you’re interested in becoming a dental assistant, take the first step by learning more about the Dental Assistant program from Altierus.

*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Dental Assistants, on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm

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