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Dental Assistants

Dental assistants work with dentists as they examine and treat patients. The assistant makes the patient comfortable in the dental chair, prepares him or her for treatment, and obtains dental records. The assistant hands the dentist the proper instruments and materials and keeps the patient's mouth dry and clear by using suction or other devices. Assistants sterilize and disinfect instruments and equipment; prepare tray setups for dental procedures; provide post-operative instruction; and instruct patients in oral health practices. Some dental assistants prepare materials for making impressions and restorations, expose radiographs, and process dental X-ray film as directed by the dentist.

Dental assistants may perform a variety of laboratory, clinical, and office duties; some make casts of the teeth and mouth from impressions taken by the dentist. In some States, assistants apply medications to the teeth and oral tissue, remove excess cement used in the filling process, and place rubber dams on the teeth to isolate them for individual treatment. In small, single-dentist practices, dental assistants may manage the office and arrange and confirm appointments, receive patients, keep treatment records, send bills, receive payments, and order dental supplies and materials. In group practices, assistants may take on one or more of these functions in addition to working with the dentists.

The work of the dental assistant should not be confused with that of the dental hygienist, who is licensed to scale and polish teeth.

Working Conditions

Dental assistants work in a well-lighted, clean environment. Handling radiographic equipment poses dangers, but the hazards can be minimized by proper use of lead shielding and safety procedures. Dental assistants, like dentists, work in either a standing or sitting position. Their work area is near the dental chair, so that they can arrange instruments, materials, and medications, and hand them to the dentist when needed. They must be a dentist's "third Hand," and, therefore, should exhibit some manual dexterity and be able to deal with people who may be under stress.

Although the 40-hour workweek prevails for dental assistants, the schedule is likely to include work on Saturday.


Dental assistants held about 168,500 jobs in 1990. About 1 out of 3 worked part time, sometimes in more than one dentist's office.

Most dental assistants work in private dental offices, either for individual dentists or for groups of dentists. Other work in dental schools, hospital dental departments, State and local public health departments, or private clinics. The Federal Government employs dental assistants in hospitals and dental clinics of the U.S. Public Health Service and the Veterans Administration.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Dental assisting is an entry level job. The principal requirements are a congenial personality and the ability to learn the job. Consequently, entrants to this occupation tend to be young; for many, it is their first experience in the world of work.

About 2 out of 5 dental assistants learn their skills on the job and an equal number are trained in dental assisting programs offered by community and junior colleges, trade schools, and technical institutes. Some assistants are trained in Armed Forces schools.

About 290 formal training programs were accredited by the American Dental Association's Commission on Dental Accreditation in 1984. More than three-fourths of the programs take 1 year to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma. Graduates of 2-year programs offered in community and junior colleges earn an associate degree. The minimum requirement for any of these programs is a high school diploma or its equivalent. Some schools require typing or a science course for admission. Some private vocational schools offer 4- to 6-month courses in dental assisting, but these are not accredited by the dental profession. Those receiving dental assistant training in the Armed Forces usually qualify for civilian jobs as dental assistants. High school students interested in careers as dental assistants should take courses in biology, chemistry, health, typing and office practices. Accredited dental assisting programs include classroom, laboratory, and preclinical instruction in dental assisting skills and related theory. In addition, students gain practical experience in affiliated dental schools, local clinics, or selected dental offices.

A correspondence course offered by the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry is also available. This course is designed for dental assistants who are learning on the job or who otherwise are unable to participate in accredited training programs on a full-time basis. The correspondence program is equivalent to 1 academic year of study but generally requires about 2 years to complete.

Certification is available through the Dental Assisting National Board. Certification is an acknowledgement of an assistant's qualifications and professional competence, but is not generally required for employment. In several States that have set standards for dental assistants who perform radiologic procedures, completion of the certification examination meets those standards.

High school graduates may qualify to take the certification examination by graduating from a training program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation; having 1 academic year of postsecondary education and 2 years of full-time experience as a dental assistant; or having 5 years of full-time experience as a dental assistant. In addition, all applicants must have taken a course in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Some dental assistants seek to qualify for practice as dental hygienists. Prospective dental assistants who foresee this possibility should plan carefully, since credit earned in a dental assistant program often is not applicable toward requirements for a dental hygiene certificate. Some dental assistants become sales representatives for firms that manufacture dental products. The field of dental assisting education offers opportunities in teaching and program administration.

Job Outlook

Employment of dental assistants is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Population growth, widespread dental insurance and great retention of natural teeth by middle-aged people are the principle factors that will fuel demand for dental care. Almost all dentists employ at least one dental assistant, and large dental practices may employ several. The incentive to do so is strong, for if dentists are able to delegate routine tasks, they can use their time for more remunerative procedures. Most job openings will be created by the need to replace assistants who leave the occupation. Since dental assisting offers relatively low pay and limited advancement, a large proportion of dental assistants leave the occupation annually. The projected decrease in the youth labor force--traditionally the principle source of supply for dental assistants-- means that fewer young adults will be available for entry level jobs such as this. Qualified applicants should have little trouble locating a job. This is largely an occupation of young women, and many of them leave the job to take on family responsibilities. Others return to school or transfer to other occupations. Few leave for retirement or disability.


Salaries of dental assistants depend largely on the duties and responsibilities attached to the particular job and on geographic location. Dentists' policies with respect to salaries vary widely, but there is little evidence that individuals who have completed a formal training program in dental assisting command higher pay. Dental assistants employed in states that set minimal standards command higher pay.

In 1990, median earnings for dental assistants working full time were about $275 a week. The middle 50 percent earned between $225 and $355 a week; 10 percent earned less than $187; and 10 percent earned more than $425 a week.

Related Occupations

Dental assistants perform a variety of duties that do not require the dentist's professional knowledge and skill. Other workers who provide similar services under the supervision of a health practitioner include medical assistants, chiropractor assistants, optometric assistants, podiatric assistants, and surgical technicians.

Sources of Additional Information

Information about career opportunities, scholarships, accredited dental assistant programs, and requirements for certification is available from:

American Dental Assistants Association, 666 N. Lake Shore Dr., Suite 1130, Chicago, Ill. 60611.

Commission on Dental Accreditation, American Dental Association, 211 E. Chicago Ave., Suite 1814, Chicago Ill. 60611.

Dental Assisting National Board, Inc., 666 N. Lake Shore Dr., Suite 1136, Chicago, Ill. 60611.


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