A dental assistant (called “dental nurse” in the UK) is focused primarily on assisting the dentist before, during and after various procedures. We will take a brief look at this career in this overview article.
The training to become a dental assistant varies. Not all assistants are licensed or registered. In fact, some have only ever received on the job training. However, almost all have basic credentials that allow them to take x-rays and polish teeth, etc.
These basic credentials typically can be acquired by taking a series of weekend courses at minimal cost. On the other hand, in most US states, attending an accredited dental assisting school is required to become a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) or a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA).
Such courses commonly take several months or maybe a year or two. After graduating from an accredited program most states will require a lengthy written exam as well as a board reviewed practical test. As with all ancillary dental positions, the rules and regulations vary so greatly from state to state that it is necessary to check with the state dental board for the specific requirements to become a licensed DA.
In the UK, changes over the last number of years have meant that all dental nurses must be registered with the GDC and carry out annual continuing professional development.
What does a dental assistant do?
The typical duties include:
- Assisting the dentist during dental procedures – including suction of water spray, preparing and providing the dentist with various dental materials – thinking ahead in terms of what the dentist needs next (a key component of becoming a successful assistant!)
- Sterilization of dental operatories and instruments
- Management of dental supplies and equipment
- Lab work (pouring of stone models, grinding/polish dental materials)
- Developing radiographs (x-rays)
- Patient management – Being empathetic and helping nervous patients in particular through the patient journey
- Patient education and instructions (before, during and after procedures)
- Record keeping – including recording dental charting and patient notes as dictated by the dentist.
This is hardly an exhaustive job description but is typical of what the average dental assistant does on a daily basis. Laws vary greatly from state to state with some states allowing greater autonomy and freedoms for assistants. In addition, most states now allow a RDA to attend further education and add an “extended functions” (RDA-EF) credential to their resume, which allows even more autonomy and responsibility under the law.
What is the salary of a dental assistant?
Salary typically depends much on the level of education and experience. The Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the median wage for Dental Assistants in 2010 was $33, 470/year or about $16 per hour with much faster than average job growth. By way of comparison the median wage of a RDA-EF in 2013 according to payscale.com is $37, 551 or around $18 per hour.
However, it would be fair to say that the demand for RDA-EF is not as high as it is for the traditional RDA. It is common for DA’s and RDA’s to work for years in this field as a means of supporting themselves to become dentists or dental hygienists.
On the other hand, many find satisfaction with a lifelong career as an assistant because it is challenging to balance the clinical duties of an assistant with the psychological aspects of patient management along with the organizational skills needed to manage and maintain the various dental supplies and equipment – all of which are essential for the day to day operation of a dental office.
Fundamentally, dental assisting is a rewarding career because it plays a vital role in helping people to be live longer, healthier lives.