Thanks to a high population of baby boomers and a trend towards better
dental care, North American dentists enjoy a healthy demand for their services.
But they can't do it alone.
The trusty dental assistant is right there beside the dentist, handing
over instruments, preparing materials, and holding the hands of frightened
Dental assistants aid dentists in the day-to-day care and treatment of
patients. In many ways they serve as nurses to a dentist.
The demand for dental assistants in the U.S. is growing. According to the
Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), employment growth in this field is expected
to be much faster than average through the year 2014.
Population growth and the fact that more middle-aged people are keeping
their natural teeth are fueling a demand for dental services. This is creating
opportunities for dental assistants.
As dentists' workloads increase, they will need to hire assistants to perform
routine tasks so that they can devote time to more detailed procedures.
"The dental industry is in critical need of dental assistants," says Karen
Spradlin, a dental assisting instructor with the Cincinnati Dental Assistants
"There is a severe shortage. One dentist told me that I could have 122
dental assisting students this year and it wouldn't be nearly enough to cover
what the industry in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky needs. The demand is exceedingly
greater than the supply."
Robert W. Chatmas, president of the Dental Assistant Training Schools Inc.
in Colorado, agrees. "Every dentist is looking for a dental assistant," he
says. "I'm very optimistic about the future."
In addition to the increasing demand, more job openings for dental assistants
will arise as older assistants leave the occupation. For many, this entry-level
occupation serves as a stepping-stone to more highly skilled and higher paying
Other assistants leave the job to take on family responsibilities, return
to school or for other reasons, resulting in a constant turnover rate.
Frances Kirkpatrick, chairperson of the certified dental assisting program
at Okanagan University College, agrees. She adds that the need will always
be there due to a constant seven-year turnover as older assistants, mostly
women, move on to other dental-related professions or leave the profession
"Our graduates do not have difficulty in finding employment, as long as
they are willing to move," she says, adding that those who relocate to a large
city center or small community usually do quite well in finding a job with
a practicing dentist.
As we said earlier, a dental assistant acts similarly to a nurse. They
can be found right next to the big, scary chair as the dentist examines and
"Assistants must be a dentist's 'third hand,'" says Spradlin. "Therefore,
dentists look for people who are reliable, can work well with others, and
have good manual dexterity."
Assistants hand instruments and materials to dentists, and keep patients'
mouths dry by using suction or other devices. They also sterilize instruments
and equipment, prepare trays for dental procedures and instruct patients in
oral health care.
More experienced assistants may prepare materials for making impressions,
expose radiographs and process dental X-ray film as directed by a dentist.
They may even remove sutures, apply anesthetics or place rubber dams on the
teeth to isolate them for individual treatment.
The most important aspect of the job, however, is to make the patient as
comfortable as possible in the dental chair, prepare them for treatment and
obtain dental records. As a result, a good dental assistant must be able to
work well with people.
The attitudes of patients can vary, depending upon their feelings about
the dental profession. Dental assistants will thus often be called upon to
hold the patient's hand and help calm him or her down.
"It's a demanding profession as you have to work closely with the individual
[patient]," Kirkpatrick says. "The person in care is often apprehensive."
Chatmas agrees. "You really have to be a people person since you often have
to deal directly with patients in a stressful situation," he says.
It's important to note, however, that dental assistants are not the same
things as dental hygienists. They perform entirely different tasks. A hygienist
only cleans teeth and performs advanced services, and has often has a two-
or three-year degree in their field.
So what does it take to be a dental assistant?
That depends upon where you live. Each state has different laws regarding
the hiring of assistants. Some require that the person be licensed. Some only
require registration. Some have no requirements at all and allow dentists
to hire people with no medical or dental experience at all.
According to Chatmas, there are basically three different types or levels
of assistants in the U.S. The first requires no license and can be hired on
sight. The second level is a registered dental assistant, or RDA. Any assistant
looking to be registered must have 18 months of experience and take an exam.
The third level requires certification as an expanded duty dental assistant.
Certification is available through the Dental Assisting National Board.
Candidates may qualify to take the certification examination by graduating
from an accredited training program, or by having two years of full-time experience
as a dental assistant.
From there, a dental assistant does have the ability to move on, although,
according to Chatmas and Spradlin, few of them do it without going back to
"A dental assistant may proceed to . . . work in a dental lab," Spradlin
says. "This means that they never see patients. They simply make the crowns,
bridges, inlays, [and] dentures on the models that the dentists send them.
"They may go on to be dental claims examiners working for insurance companies,"
Spradlin continues. "They may decide to be dental supply representatives and
sell products to dentists. Some may be employed as dental equipment managers
or they may even repair equipment.
"Some may be surgical assistants and work in hospitals, [and] some may
choose to work in only one specialty of dentistry, such as orthodontics, oral
surgery, or pediatric dentistry." Others may move up to the front to become
office managers or go back to school to become dental hygienists.
There are a number of programs available to anyone interested in becoming
a dental assistant. College is not always necessary, but a high school diploma
While you don't necessarily require experience in the field to get a job,
most dentists will tell you they'd rather hire someone with experience than
a complete novice.
According to the American Dental Association, there are about 245 dental
assisting programs in the U.S. alone. Most programs take about a year or less
to complete. Two-year programs offered in community and junior colleges lead
to an associate degree.
"Most assistants learn their skills on the job, though many are trained
in dental assisting programs offered by community and junior colleges, trade
schools, and technical institutes," says Spradlin.
Chatmas says many dentists are willing to help pay for training if a novice
assistant decides to become certified. Indeed, Chatmas's program, DATS, is
designed specifically to help train novices in the basics of the trade.
The most recent figures from the Occupational Employment Statistics show
dental assistants earning a mean annual wage of $29,570. Most dental assistants
have a 32- to 40-hour workweek, which may include Saturdays or evenings.
As the need for dentists in North America increases, the need for assistants
will rise as well. The demand could grow quite rapidly, as many dentists tend
to hire two or three assistants to help out in their work.
Thus, for someone who likes people, enjoys a healthy lifestyle (or at least
a healthy set of gums), and is responsible and trustworthy, becoming a dental
assistant could be a rewarding career.
Dental Assistant Programs in the U.S.A directory, plus links to school sites
American Dental Association: Dental AssistingThe ADA has devoted a section of its Web site to dental assisting
and its prospects in the coming years
The Cincinnati Dental Assistants SocietyAn example of the different types of organizations and training
facilities that exist throughout North America
Dental Assistant Career InformationGood info from the folks at About.com