March 3-9, 2019 is Dental Assistants Awareness Week™, and as a career college that helps train students for dental assistant careers, we want to celebrate. Dental assistants help keep dental practices moving, doing everything from stocking supplies to providing patients support during procedures.
We want to highlight how dental assistants make a difference in their work by describing their daily duties—and explaining how you can train for careers in this field. We hope this article inspires you to thank a dental assistant—or even explore training to become one yourself!
Demand for Dental Assistants is Growing
First, it’s important to know that more dental assistants are needed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that job openings for dental assistants will grow by 19% over the 2016-2026 period, much faster than the 7% growth rate for all jobs during the same period. The 2018 median salary for dental assistants in the U.S. was $37,630 (the lowest 10% earned $26,170).
Jobs are growing because the demand for dental care is growing. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 granted dental insurance to 5 million American adults for the first time. Our aging population also plays a role – a 2015 Dental Economics article predicted that “By 2040, 62% of dental expenditures are expected to come from patients who are at least 40 years old.” Finally, there just aren’t enough dental facilities to meet all this demand. According to the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, as of 2018 only 29.26% of Americans live in an area where there are sufficient dental care providers to meet demand.
A Dental Assistant’s Day: Preparing for Patients
At the start of the day, the dental assistant will arrive about half an hour before the first appointment to ensure everything is prepared. He or she will:
- Check the stock room to ensure materials needed for the day’s appointments are prepared
- Pull charts, x-rays, and other information the dentist will need to review for each patient before check-ups and procedures
- Pull instrument kits
- Set up treatment rooms
Dental assistants may also be responsible for sterilizing dental instruments in an autoclave or other sterilization device.
The Main Event: Performing at Chairside
Dental assistants are there to support patient safety and comfort first. Their main method of ensuring patients’ well-being is to provide the dentist with everything he or she needs to carry out a procedure exactly when it’s required. Understanding the flow of an appointment and being able to anticipate the needs of both patients and dentists is very important.
During an appointment, a dental assistant will:
- Escort patients from waiting rooms
- Adjust the chair, lighting, put bib and protective glasses on the patient
- Review the patient’s health history, note changes, and confirm the dentist is aware of any changes
- Take the patient’s blood pressure and pulse
- Open up packets of sterilized instruments and set them out on the dentist’s tray
- Prepare any syringes of anesthetic that may be necessary
- Describe the procedure to the patient, and offer nervous patients comfort and support
- Hold the patient’s mouth open during procedure
- Hand instruments to the dentist as needed—in fact, it’s better if you can anticipate what the dentist wants and have it ready before he/she asks
- Mix up compounds, including bonding materials, compounds for taking casts or impressions of teeth, amalgam for fillings
- Rinse the mouth and also perform suction
- Take x-rays of patients’ teeth, following safety protocols
- Escort patients back to the front office for payment or scheduling
- Clean up and re-stock treatment rooms before the next appointment
Certain patients may need more comfort than others. Depending on the practice, a dental assistant may also have to provide neck pillows or even headphones for patients to use during procedures.
Between Appointments or After Hours: Keeping the Office Flowing
Dental assistants also help out in the front office. Patient record keeping can be one of their primary duties. Dental assistants may update patient notes, scan paper documents into electronic file systems, and shred old documents. They may also assist reception staff with calling patients to confirm appointments, sending out reminder cards or messages, and arranging referrals to specialists such as orthodontists.
Finally, dental assistants keep the supplies stocked. They will take inventory of supplies on a regular basis, and place orders with suppliers and vendors. They may also be put in charge of finding new suppliers for the practice. Without its dental assistants, a dental practice won’t run in a smooth and orderly fashion.
Training for Dental Assistant Careers
Dental assisting as a career has its advantages. It offers variety, flexibility, and, according to the American Dental Association, “interesting, pleasant, people-oriented environments in which to work”.  Dental assistants work in more places than you might expect aside from solo or group practices. They can also work in hospital-based clinics, nursing homes, school, or public health dentistry clinics, including nonprofits such as Mission of Mercy.
Training requirements for dental assistants vary—some states require licensure for entry-level dental assistants, some don’t. Employers, however, may prefer applicants who bring formal training and certification to the interview table. Because medical emergencies can arise during dental procedures, many employers will also expect dental assistants to have or obtain CPR certification as a condition of employment.
Most dental assistant programs come in the form of a post-secondary diploma. At Altierus Career College, our Dental Assistant Diploma can be completed in as few as nine months. Students learn:
- Human anatomy—Focusing on the head, teeth, gums, and tongue
- Radiography—How to perform x-rays safely while obtaining high-quality images
- Dental health—Reviewing disorders of the teeth, gums, and mouth, and how nutrition and other habits (e.g. smoking) can impact dental health
- Laboratory procedures—How to take impressions, casts and perform other laboratory tests
- Dental specialties—Students learn about orthodontics, endodontics, oral/maxillofacial surgery, and other specialized areas of dentistry
Hands-on learning involves supervised practice in school labs. Some students may also perform clinical shadowing (following a working dental assistant though his or her shift) or other experiences outside the classroom. Dental assistant training is just as varied as the role itself!
Train for a Career that Makes People Smile
Gain the skills you need to make a difference in the lives of patients. Contact Altierus Career College about our Dental Assistant diploma program today!