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What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

November 18, 2019

 What does a dental assistant do

Are you thinking about a career as a dental assistant? It can be a fun, fast-paced and challenging career that comes with a variety of responsibilities. What’s more, you will be a valuable member of the dental team, with comprehensive and varied duties.

To be a great dental assistant and perform the daily tasks needed, you need a broad set of skills — technical, administrative, and people — to provide patients with high-quality oral care. Here’s a look at what dental assistant work actually looks like and the skills needed to succeed.

Duties of a Dental Assistant

Dental assistants provide patient care and chair-side support as dentists complete exams and procedures. Most visibly, people may see dental assistant’s passing instruments, but that’s just the beginning of their technical skills. Other technical duties of a dental assistant may include:

  • Assisting with dental procedures such as fillings, crowns, and extractions
  • Taking & pouring dental impressions (molds of the mouth)
  • Preparing patients for surgery
  • Operating equipment and monitors
  • Talking with patients
  • Performing administrative tasks
  • Preparing examination areas
  • Cleaning up after procedures
  • Sterilizing equipment

Dental assistants can perform some polishing or explain proper dental hygiene to patients, but most often, their patient contact occurs when working with a dentist on procedures that could benefit from extra help. Dental assistants differ from dental hygienists in that dental hygienists perform much more unsupervised work on patients.

Skills Needed to Be a Dental Assistant

If you’ve decided to pursue a career in dentistry, you may be wondering, “what does it take to be a dental assistant?” Because the duties are so broad, there are a variety of skills you need.

Technical Skills

One of the primary jobs of  dental assistants is to help dentists perform procedures. Dental assistants work closely with dentists to perform tasks such as fillings, crowns, and other procedures. Some technical skills needed include:

  • Knowledge of advanced dental procedures in order to anticipate the order of operations
  • Ability to take X-rays, blood pressure readings, and dental impressions
  • Knowledge of dental materials and maintaining equipment
  • Ability to spot a dental emergency

Legally, a dental assistant needs to know CPR in order to respond in an emergency as well.

To be allowed to do more advanced functions, such as taking x-rays or performing coronal polishes, many states require dental assistants to be licensed or certified, and those requirements vary by state.

People Skills

Not everybody loves going to the dentist. A dental assistant is often the first face that patients see when they walk through the door, so you need to be friendly and compassionate. That’s why good people skills are so important. You’re going to have to:

  • Settle patients in and prepare them for their check-up, surgery or procedure
  • Ask about their medical history
  • Be a good listener
  • Help patients feel comfortable before, during, and after treatment
  • Be a good communicator, as you’ll provide oral hygiene and care instructions after procedures or surgery

Admin Skills

A lot of jobs come with administration duties, and this one is no different. On top of your technical abilities and people skills, you’ll be asked to do a variety of admin tasks on a daily basis. The scope of those tasks will vary from office to office, but could include:

  • Performing office management tasks, including computer-based work
  • Communicating with patients to schedule appointments, make reminder calls, and even sorting out billing issues
  • Monitoring and ordering supplies when needed

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Some states do not require formal licensure to become a dental assistant, meaning that paths to the workforce can vary. It’s best to look up your state’s requirements before proceeding.

Many people typically take classes through a school or technical program. This is where you will learn the appropriate technical skills required for the job. Dental assisting programs can take between one and two years to complete, depending on if the desired outcome is a certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree. If your state does not require licensure to become a dental assistant, it is still a good idea to look into education because this can give you a leg up when joining the workforce.

After your education, Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) licensure is required in 39 states. To check if you need to sit for state licensure, you can check their website1. The Dental Assisting program at Carrington prepares grads in CA to take the State of California Dental Board examination for licensure as a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA).

There are other exams for specialty practices including:

  • Orthodontic Dental Assistant
  • Preventive Functions Dental Assistant
  • Restorative Functions Dental Assistant

Individuals seeking to enter this career field may be subject to screenings such as, but not limited to, criminal background checks and drug/alcohol testing prior to externship, to attain occupational licensure/certification or employment, and throughout their careers.

Dental Assistant Career Information

Dental Assisting is forecast to be one of the fastest growing healthcare occupations in the coming years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 11% from 2018 to 2028, meaning the job outlook is much faster than the average for all occupations. The national median annual salary was $38,660 in May 2018.2 For regional data check the BLS website ( Earnings vary by experience, responsibility, performance, tenure, and geographic area.  

Most people will work full-time in a dental practice, though they can specialize and work in orthodontic offices, periodontist offices, or other specialized practices.

Kickstart Your Career

Dental assisting is a growing career path with plenty of exciting duties. If you’re interested in learning more about how to pursue your certification, Carrington College offers a top-tier Dental Assisting program.3 Contact us to request more information.



[2] Dental Assistant

[3] Carrington College prepares students to take appropriate certification and licensure exams related to their individual majors. The College does not guarantee students will successfully pass these exams or be certified or licensed as a result of completing the program. Credential preparation varies by location.

Learn More About A Career In Dental Assisting

Dental assistants help dentists with basic tasks such as impressions and handling equipment during procedures. This exciting career blends office administration and scheduling with health care tasks.

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