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Dental Assisting Careers
The dental assistant takes on significant responsibilities as a member of the dental health care team. Assistants greatly increase the efficiency of the dentist in the delivery of quality oral health care and are valuable members of the dental care team. If you have strong communication skills, enjoy working with your hands and mind, and want a career with responsibility, dental assisting is for you.
The best way to become a dental assistant is to receive a formal education. Studying in a Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) program provides an educational foundation based on the latest procedures and techniques. In some areas of the country, dental assistants can begin their careers without a college degree; however, education is encouraged. So, if a career in health care and 1-2 years of formal education appeals to you, then dental assisting is a career you may want to explore.
Dental assistants may be the most valuable asset to a dental practice. In addition to performing technical duties, they play an important role in helping patients feel comfortable before, during, and after dental treatment. A career as a dental assistant offers many challenges. In addition to assisting the dentists during a variety of procedures, assistants also take and develop dental radiographs (X-rays), sterilize instruments and equipment, and take impressions of patient's teeth.
What Do Dental Assistants Do?
The duties of a dental assistant are among the most comprehensive and varied in the dental office. The dental assistant performs many tasks requiring both interpersonal and technical skills. Although state regulations vary, some specific tasks dental assistants may perform include:
- Assisting the dentist during a variety of treatment procedures.
- Taking and developing dental radiographs (X-rays).
- Asking about the patient's medical history and taking blood pressure and pulse.
- Serving as an infection control officer, developing infection control protocol, and preparing and sterilizing instruments and equipment.
- Helping patients feel comfortable before, during, and after dental treatment.
- Providing patients with instructions for oral care following surgery or other dental treatment procedures, such as the placement of a restoration.
- Teaching patients appropriate oral hygiene strategies to maintain oral health (e.g. toothbrushing, flossing, and nutritional counseling).
- Taking impressions of patients' teeth for study casts (models of teeth).
- Performing office management tasks that often require the use of a personal computer.
- Communicating with patients and suppliers (e.g. scheduling appointments, answering the telephone, billing, and ordering supplies).
- Assisting with and helping to provide direct patient care in all dental specialties, including orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, periodontics, and oral surgery.
What Are the Advantages of a Dental Assisting Career?
Dental assistants have one of the most diverse and interesting of all positions in a dental office. Dental assisting is a challenging and rewarding career, demanding versatility and a willingness to assume responsibility for many different tasks.
Since dental assistants are in demand, career options include both full-time and part-time positions.
- Excellent working conditions
Dental offices are interesting, pleasant, people-oriented environments in which to work.
- Personal satisfaction
Dental assisting involves human contact, and with this personal interaction comes the satisfaction of knowing you've really made a difference in someone's life by helping to provide a valuable health service.
Where Do Dental Assistants Work?
Since many dentists employ two or more dental assistants, employment opportunities in this field are excellent. The types of practice settings available to dental assistants include:
- Solo dental practices (practices with one dentist)
- Group practices (practices with two or more dentists)
- Specialty practices, such as oral and maxillofacial surgery (removal of teeth and correction of facial deformities), orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics (straightening teeth with braces or other appliances), endodontics (root canal treatment), periodontics (treatment of gum problems), prosthodontics (replacement of lost teeth), and pediatric dentistry (treatment of children)
- Public health dentistry, including settings such as schools and clinics, which focus on the prevention of dental problems within entire communities
- Hospital dental clinics, assisting dentists in the treatment of bedridden patients and dental school clinics, assisting dental students as they learn to perform dental procedures
Other career opportunities for dental assistants include:
- Insurance companies, processing dental insurance claims
- Vocational schools, technical institutes, community colleges, dental schools and universities, teaching others to be dental assistants (which may require associate or baccalaureate college degrees)
- Dental product sales representatives
What Education/Training Does a Dental Assistant Need?
It takes a relatively short period of time to become a dental assistant. Dental assistants receive their formal education through academic programs at community colleges, vocational schools, technical institutes, universities, or dental schools. Graduates of these programs usually receive certificates.
Although the majority of academic dental assisting programs take nine to 11 months to complete, some schools offer accelerated training, part-time education programs, or remote training education programs.
The agency responsible for accrediting dental assisting programs and deciding whether or not they meet the standards for accreditation is the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association. There are approximately 245 Commission-accredited dental assisting programs in the United States. For a list of dental assisting programs in New England, please click here.
In order to become a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA), dental assistants must pass a certification exam. Most dental assistants who choose to become nationally certified take the Dental Assisting National Board's (DANB) Certified Dental Assistant examination. Becoming a CDA assures the public that the dental assistant is prepared to assist competently in the provision of dental care.
Dental assistants are eligible to take the CDA examination if they have completed a dental assisting program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Individuals who have been trained on the job or have graduated from non-accredited programs are eligible to take the national certification examination after they have completed two years of full-time work experience as dental assistants. Some states also recognize passage of components of the CDA examination, such as the Radiation Health and Safety examination or the Infection Control examination, for licensing and regulatory purposes.
State regulations vary, and some states offer registration or licensure in addition to this national certification program.
What Is a Dental Assistant's Earning Potential?
The salary of a dental assistant depends primarily upon the responsibilities associated with the specific position and the geographic location of employment.
Dental assistants earn salaries equal to other health care personnel with similar training and experience, such as medical assistants, physical therapy assistants, occupational therapy assistants, veterinary technicians, and pharmacy assistants.
Where Can I Get More Information?
Contact your dentist or the state and local dental society component of the American Dental Association in your area. Perhaps you can arrange for a brief visit to a dental office to observe dental assistants at work. You can also contact an accredited dental assisting program and arrange to talk with a counselor and visit the school. For more information on careers in dental assisting, please visit the American Dental Association's section on careers in dentistry.
For a list of accredited Dental Assisting programs throughout the country, please contact:
The Commission on Dental Accreditation
211 E. Chicago Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60611
For more information about dental assisting write to or call:
American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA)
203 North LaSalle Street
Chicago, Illinois 60601-1225
(312) 541-1496 fax
The American Dental Assistants Association is the national professional organization for dental assistants.
Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB)
676 N. St. Clair
Chicago, Illinois 60611
The Dental Assisting National Board provides information on certification.
In addition to the voluntary national certification examination offered by the Dental Assisting National Board, some states require dental assistants to be registered.
For more information on the type of education, training, or registration dental assistants must have in your state, contact your state board of dental examiners. You can find this listing under "state government agencies" in the telephone directory.
Dental Assisting Programs in New England
Charles H. McCann Technical Institute
Michelle D. Racette, RDH
70 Hodges Cross Rd
North Adams, MA 01247
(413) 663-5383 ext. 183
(413) 664-9424 fax
Massasoit Community College
Judith Shannon, RDH
900 Randolph St
Canton, MA 02021
(781) 821-2222 ext. 2754
(781) 575-9428 fax
Middlesex Community College
Peg Jacobs Bloy, RDH, CDA, MS
33 Kearney Square
Lowell, MA 01852
(978) 656-3078 fax
Northern Essex Community College
Kerin Hamidiani, RDH, CDA, MEd
45 Franklin St
Lawrence, MA 01841
(978) 738-7146 fax
Quinsigamond Community College
Jennifer McKeon, RDH, CDA
670 West Boylston St
Worcester, MA 01606
(508) 854-2704 fax
Southeastern Technical Institute
Tammi Hassan, DMD, Director
250 Foundry St
South Easton, MA 02375
(508) 508-230-1558 fax
Springfield Tech Community College
Dental Assisting Program
Carol Giaquinto, RDH, CDA, MEd
One Armory Square
PO Box 9000
Springfield, MA 01105
(413) 755-4926 fax
Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School
Amy Fleisher, CDA
65 Pleasant St
Upton, MA 01568
(508) 529-7758 ext. 2678
(508) 529-2403 fax
Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School
Lois Aguiar, CDA
940 County St
Taunton, MA 02780
(508) 823-5151 ext. 351
(508) 822-2687 (fax)
Cape Cod Technical High School
Peggy Reilly O'Brien, RDH, MA
351 Pleasant Lake Ave
Harwich, MA 02645
(508) 432-4500 ext. 306
(508) 430-1599 fax
Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School
Maria Torres, CDA
251 Stonehaven Rd
Fall River, MA 02723
(508) 678-2891 ext. 2254
(508) 679-6423 fax
Greater Lawrence Technical School
57 River Rd
Andover, MA 01810
(978) 686-0194, ext. 4121
Greater New Bedford Regional Technical High School
Catherine Johnson, DA
1121 Ashley Blvd
New Bedford, MA 02745
(508) 998-3321 ext.
(508) 995-7268 fax
Madison Park Technical Vocational School
Ruby Elder-Bush, RDH, BS
75 Malcolm X Blvd
Boston, MA 02120
(617) 635-8976 ext. 112
(617) 635-9831 fax
Minuteman Career & Technical School
Ellen Gambardella, CDA
758 Marrett Rd
Lexington, MA 02421
(781) 861-6500, ext. 229
(978) 318-0807 fax
Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School
Michelle Salvanelli, RDH, CDA
1050 Westminster St, Rte 2A
Fitchburg, MA 01420
(978) 345-9200, ext. 4108
(508) 753-6532 fax
Nashoba Valley Technical High School
Amanda Doherty, CDA
100 Littleton Rd
Westford, MA 01886
(978) 692-4711, ext. 1144
(978) 392-0570 fax
Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational
100 Hemlock Rd
Wakefield, MA 01880
(781) 246-0810, ext. 1187
(781) 246-4919 fax
Shawsheen Valley Technical School
Lorraine C. Reppucci, CDA
100 Cook St
Billerica, MA 01821
(978) 677-2111 ext. 608
(978) 663-6272 fax
Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High School
Mary Frohn, CDA
147 Pond St
Franklin, MA 02038
(508) 528-6074 fax
Looking for a program outside of New England? Go to the ADA's Dental Programs page.