Dental Office Assistant: Employment Info & Requirements

Dental office assistants, sometimes called dental assistants, work closely with dentists and perform administrative, technical, treatment and other duties to allow dentists to work more efficiently. Learn the education requirements, necessary skills, salary possibilities and job growth outlook for this career.

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Career Definition

The duties of a dental office assistant can vary from state-to-state depending on regulations, but generally involve greeting patients and making them comfortable, administrative duties in the dental office, sterilization and setup of dental tools, cleanup of the examination room and assisting the dentist in various procedures. In some states, allowable duties for a dental assistant can also include taking x-rays and advising patients on dental hygiene and post-surgical care.

How to Become a Dental Office Assistant

Required Education

A high school diploma is usually required, along with a certificate, the test for which can only be taken after passing a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) training course accredited by the American Dental Association (the ADA). Some states also require registration or licensing. Training to be a dental office assistant can sometimes be on-the-job, but the quickest route to certification is through an accredited community college or trade school program, which can be completed in 6 months to a year. Once the course has been completed, prospective dental office assistants are allowed to take the test for certification. On-the-job-trainee dental assistants have to work in a dental office for 2 years prior to taking the test for certification. According to the website of the ADA (www.ada.org), as of 2006, there were about 270 accredited dental assistant training programs in the U.S.

Skills Required

In addition to the skills needed to assist dentists in various procedures (this can vary from state-to-state), dental office assistants need strong administrative and communication skills, since dental assistants may need to calm anxious patients or tend to patients just out of surgery. In addition, dental assistants must be able to follow and, in some cases, establish infection control protocols for the office to prevent the transfer of infections from patient-to-patient or patient-to-staff.

Career and Economic Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job prospects for dental office assistants are excellent, with a much higher than average growth rate of 31% expected in the period between 2010 and 2020. In part, this is because the demand for dental work is increasing, and practices commonly hire many assistants to do check-up work so that dentists can focus their time on advanced procedures. As of 2012, wages for dental office assistants varied greatly across the country, with the median hourly wage resting at $16.59 (www.bls.gov).

Alternate Career Options

Medical Assistant

For those interested in a different type of health care setting, the career of medical assistant might be appealing. No formal educational requirements exist, though high school or postsecondary courses in anatomy and biology could be helpful; many learn the skills through on-the-job training. Similar to dental assistants, 31% expansion of jobs was predicted by the BLS from 2010-2020. The BLS reported a median hourly salary for medical assistants of $14.12 in 2012.

Pharmacy Technician

Although training requirements vary by the state, many of these techs learn the skills on the job, and some earn certificates in community college and vocational school programs. Much faster than average job growth of 32% was projected from 2010-2020, for this career that paid a median hourly wage of $14.10 in 2012, per the BLS.

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