Dentists are expected to hire more assistants to perform routine
tasks so that they may devote their own time to more complex
Most assistants learn their skills on the job, although an
increasing number are trained in dental-assisting programs;
most programs take 1 year or less to complete.
Nature of the Work
Dental assistants perform a variety of patient care, office,
and laboratory duties. They work chairside as dentists examine
and treat patients. They make patients as comfortable as possible
in the dental chair, prepare them for treatment, and obtain their
dental records. Assistants hand instruments and materials to dentists
and keep patients’ mouths dry and clear by using suction or other
devices. Assistants also sterilize and disinfect instruments and
equipment, prepare trays of instruments for dental procedures,
and instruct patients on postoperative and general oral health
Some dental assistants prepare materials for impressions and
restorations, take dental x rays, and process x-ray film as directed
by a dentist. They also may remove sutures, apply topical anesthetics
to gums or cavity-preventive agents to teeth, remove excess cement
used in the filling process, and place rubber dams on the teeth
to isolate them for individual treatment.
Those with laboratory duties make casts of the teeth and mouth
from impressions, clean and polish removable appliances, and make
temporary crowns. Dental assistants with office duties schedule
and confirm appointments, receive patients, keep treatment records,
send bills, receive payments, and order dental supplies and materials.
Dental assistants should not be confused with dental hygienists,
who are licensed to perform different clinical tasks.
Dental assistants work in a well-lighted, clean environment.
Their work area usually is near the dental chair so that they
can arrange instruments, materials, and medication and hand them
to the dentist when needed. Dental assistants must wear gloves,
masks, eyewear, and protective clothing to protect themselves
and their patients from infectious diseases. Assistants also follow
safety procedures to minimize the risks associated with the use
of x-ray machines.
About half of dental assistants have a 35- to 40-hour workweek,
which may include work on Saturdays or evenings.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Most assistants learn their skills on the job, although an increasing
number are trained in dental-assisting programs offered by community
and junior colleges, trade schools, technical institutes, or the
Armed Forces. Assistants must be a second pair of hands for a
dentist; therefore, dentists look for people who are reliable,
work well with others, and have good manual dexterity. High school
students interested in a career as a dental assistant should take
courses in biology, chemistry, health, and office practices.
The Commission on Dental Accreditation within the American Dental
Association (ADA) approved 265 dental-assisting training programs
in 2005. Programs include classroom, laboratory, and preclinical
instruction in dental-assisting skills and related theory. In
addition, students gain practical experience in dental schools,
clinics, or dental offices. Most programs take 1 year or less
to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma. Two-year programs
offered in community and junior colleges lead to an associate
degree. All programs require a high school diploma or its equivalent,
and some require science or computer-related courses for admission.
A number of private vocational schools offer 4-month to 6-month
courses in dental assisting, but the Commission on Dental Accreditation
does not accredit these programs.
Most States regulate the duties that dental assistants are allowed
to perform through licensure or registration. Licensure or registration
may require passing a written or practical examination. States
offering licensure or registration have a variety of schools offering
courses—approximately 10 to 12 months in length—that meet their
State’s requirements. Other States require dental assistants to
complete State-approved education courses of 4 to 12 hours in
length. Some States offer registration of other dental assisting
credentials with little or no education required. Some States
require continuing education to maintain licensure or registration.
A few States allow dental assistants to perform any function delegated
to them by the dentist.
Individual States have adopted different standards for dental
assistants who perform certain advanced duties, such as radiological
procedures. Completion of the Radiation Health and Safety examination
offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) meets those
standards in more than 30 States. Some States require completion
of a State-approved course in radiology as well.
Certification is available through DANB and is recognized or
required in more than 30 States. Other organizations offer registration,
most often at the State level. Certification is an acknowledgment
of an assistant’s qualifications and professional competence and
may be an asset when one is seeking employment. Candidates may
qualify to take the DANB certification examination by graduating
from an ADA-accredited dental assisting education program or by
having 2 years of full-time, or 4 years of part-time, experience
as a dental assistant. In addition, applicants must have current
certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. For annual recertification,
individuals must earn continuing education credits.
Without further education, advancement opportunities are limited.
Some dental assistants become office managers, dental-assisting
instructors, or dental product sales representatives. Others go
back to school to become dental hygienists. For many, this entry-level
occupation provides basic training and experience and serves as
a steppingstone to more highly skilled and higher paying jobs.
Dental assistants held about 267,000 jobs in 2004. Almost all
jobs for dental assistants were in offices of dentists. A small
number of jobs were in the Federal, State, and local governments
or in offices of physicians. About 2 out of 5 dental assistants
worked part time, sometimes in more than one dental office.
Job prospects for dental assistants should be excellent. Employment
is expected to grow much faster than average for all occupations
through the year 2014. In fact, dental assistants is expected
to be one of the fastest growing occupations over the 2004-14
In addition to job openings due to employment growth, numerous
job openings will arise out of the need to replace assistants
who transfer to other occupations, retire, or leave for other
reasons. Many opportunities are for entry-level positions offering
Population growth and greater retention of natural teeth by middle-aged
and older people will fuel demand for dental services. Older dentists,
who have been less likely to employ assistants, are leaving the
occupation and will be replaced by recent graduates, who are more
likely to use one or even two assistants. In addition, as dentists’
workloads increase, they are expected to hire more assistants
to perform routine tasks, so that they may devote their own time
to more complex procedures.
Median hourly earnings of dental assistants were $13.62 in May
2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $11.06 and $16.65 an
hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.11, and the highest
10 percent earned more than $19.97 an hour.
Benefits vary substantially by practice setting and may be contingent
upon full-time employment. According to the American Dental Association
(ADA), almost all full-time dental assistants employed by private
practitioners received paid vacation time. The ADA also found
that 9 out of 10 full-time and part-time dental assistants received
Other workers supporting health practitioners include medical
assistants, occupational therapist assistants and aides, pharmacy
aides, pharmacy technicians, and physical therapist assistants
Sources of Additional Information
Information about career opportunities and accredited dental
assistant programs is available from:
Commission on Dental Accreditation, American Dental Association,
211 East Chicago Ave., Suite 1814, Chicago, IL 60611. Internet:
For information on becoming a Certified Dental Assistant and
a list of State boards of dentistry, contact:
Dental Assisting National Board, Inc., 676 North Saint Clair
St., Suite 1880, Chicago, IL 60611. Internet: http://www.danb.org/
For more information on a career as a dental assistant and general
information about continuing education, contact: