Dental Assisting

Bite into this lucrative industry

Dental assistants perform a variety of patient care, office and laboratory duties. They work chair-side as dentists examine and treat patients, make patients as comfortable as possible while in the chair, prepare them for treatment and keep their dental records. Assistants may also be asked to sterilize and disinfect instruments and equipment, prepare trays of instruments for dental procedures and instruct patients on postoperative and general oral health care.

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Getting Educated

In the future, dental assistants will be called upon to be increasingly knowledgeable and independent. While many assistants learn their skills on the job, an increasing number are now training in dental-assisting programs offered by community and junior colleges, trade schools and technical institutes, before seeking employment. High school students interested in a career as a dental assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, health. Business classes and organization skills are also an asset.

Most programs take a 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's degree. A number of private vocational schools offer four to six month courses in dental assisting, but the Commission on Dental Accreditation does not accredit these programs.

Certification is available through the Dental Assisting National Board (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. It is a big asset when seeking employment.

Without further education, advancement opportunities in the field of dentistry 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 jobs that pay more and require more skill.

Job Prospects

The job prospects, pay rate and interest in dental assistance are all very high. Employment is expected to grow much faster than the average. 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. Hiring assistants to perform routine tasks allows dentists to devote their own time to more profitable procedures.

The most recent statistics show that there are over 250,000 dental assistants employed across the United States. Almost all dental assistants work in the offices of dentists, although a small number work in physicians' offices, with educational services and in hospitals.

About half of dental assistants have a 35- to 40-hour work week. Sometimes they are required to work Saturdays and evenings. Well paid dental assistants can make as much as $20 per hour.

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