Dental assistants provide important patient care during dental procedures. Find out more about this popular dentistry role and how you can get started today.
A dental assistant assists a dentist during dental procedures and provides patient care including checking vitals, educating patients on oral health, and taking radiographs. Dental assistants may also perform office management tasks and handle patient communication and appointment scheduling.
Duties and responsibilities may vary slightly based on the industry and your employer. However, typical tasks of a dental assistant working in a traditional clinical setting within a dentist’s or physician’s office may include:
Assisting a dentist with dental procedures
Ensuring a patient feels comfortable and informed
Conducting clerical tasks for the management and operations of a dental or physician’s office
Communicating with patients about scheduling, medications, billing, or other matters
Informing patients of aftercare instructions regarding procedures
Sterilizing equipment and dental tools
Taking and processing radiographs for dentists
Dental assistants most commonly work in a dental office but can work in other industries as well. Of all of the 347,170 dental assistants working in the US as of May 2021, 318,100 were employed in dental offices. Outpatient care centers rank as the second most common work environment, which employed an average of 6,420, US dental assistants in 2020 .
Other top employers of dental assistants include offices of physicians, ambulatory health services, and the executive branch of the federal government. Most of these positions are full-time, but some jobs outside of a traditional dental office setting may offer part-time options .
The job outlook for dental assistants is promising when looking ahead to the next decade. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 8 percent growth rate for this profession from 2021 to 2031, which is a fairly rapid rate of growth when compared to similar professions .
The average annual salary of dental assistants in the US as of May 2021 is $38,660, or about $18.59 an hour . Of all dental assistants within the US, the lowest 10 percent of all earners made $29,580 annually, while the top 10 percent of all earners made an annual average of $59,540 . Factors that can impact a dental assistant salary include certification, location, years of experience, and employer.
There are several factors that can affect the salary outlook for dental assistants. Holding additional certifications and working in an area where there’s a high need for dental assistants can mean that you may earn more per year while working for a smaller practice or a lower-need area can mean that you earn a little less than the national average.
Geographic location: Where you work within the US will impact your salary. The top three highest-paying states within the US are Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Alaska. Among some of the lowest-paying states are West Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Cost of living is likely a factor in these salary swings by location, but there's also a correlation between the concentration of dental assistants and salary. Areas with higher employment rates of dental assistants and a higher need for these professionals may pay slightly more, especially within densely populated metropolitan areas.
Practice size and type: The size of your employer’s practice will be a factor on how much you make as a dental assistant. Larger practices with many dental assistants may pay less than smaller, private practices. Specialty practices and the Federal Executive Branch may also pay more per year than a traditional private dental office.
Experience level: The longer you work as a dental assistant, the more you may earn. While this factor may not make as significant an impact on your annual salary as other factors like certification, many employers will compensate experienced dental assistants slightly more than those who are newer to the profession.
Certifications: If you earn the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification, you can expect to earn about $2 more an hour than a dental assistant without their CDA. Holding a CDA certification will also serve you well if you plan on remaining in this profession long-term. A survey conducted by the DANB found that 61 percent of the surveyed dental assistants who had earned CDA certification reported receiving a raise in annual salary as opposed to 45 percent of non-certified dental assistants receiving a raise .
Additional skills: If you have learned additional skills outside of the requirements of a typical dental assistant, or if you have earned specialized certifications, you may earn more per year. An example of additional skills could be anything from clerical office administration to radiology.
There are a few ways that you can increase your earning potential as a dental assistant. Expanding your skill set via certifications, honing your expertise by specializing in a certain area, taking on more responsibility at work, and gaining experience in your field are just some of the ways you may be able to increase your salary as a dental assistant.
For many dental assistants, staying the course and honing their skills is the best way to earn more per year. Employers will likely view years of experience in the profession as confirmation of expertise and may therefore be willing to pay more. There’s not a set amount you’ll earn per year you work as a dental assistant, so the increased annual pay will likely be dependent on your employer.
You can specialize in a certain area within the field of dentistry while enrolled in your program by completing an externship, a specialty course, or earning additional DANB certifications with specific focuses. With specialized certifications from the DANB, you may be able to work as an orthodontic assistant or oral surgery assistant, which may pay more per year. On Coursera, you’ll also find courses that offer areas of specialty for dental assistants like Implant Dentistry or The Oral Cavity: The Portal to Health and Disease.
Specializing in a certain area can also mean more mobility as a dental assistant. This may lead to more options of where to work and the ability to choose employers that offer a higher salary.
Some dental assistants may earn more per year if they take on additional tasks within a practice, which may also lead to a new job title that pays more. If you work for a smaller dental practice, simply asking for more responsibilities may be all it takes to gain your value as an employee. If taking on more responsibilities means additional training or certification, you can always ask your employer to help you pay for and enroll in a program. In many cases, your expertise is highly beneficial to the practice as it is to you.
While a CDA national certification is a requirement to work as a dental assistant in most states, there are other optional exams and certifications that may lead to an income boost. The DANB offers the following exams and certifications for dental assistants:
National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)
Another option beyond these certifications offered by the DANB is to enroll in an expanded duties dental assistant program. Each state will have its own program, exam, course content, and structure. The job title you carry after completing a program like this may also vary by state, from a Licensed Dental Assistant (LDA) to an Expanded Functions Dental Assistant (EFDA), and more.
Enrolling in an expanded duties program means that you can take on more responsibility in a dental office and be a more valuable employee.
To become a dental assistant, you must complete a CODA-accredited dental assistant program and get state and/or national certification. You can then apply for dental assistant jobs within your area.
You don’t need an associate or bachelor’s degree to become a dental assistant; you only need to complete a one to two-year dental assistant program. Programs are usually offered at local vocational or community colleges. All of the education and training you need to prepare for licensure and required certification should be taught in the program. Some coursework you may see as a part of a dental assistant program includes dental office administration, fundamentals of dentistry, and dental radiology. You can expect to learn skills like how to sterilize dental equipment, take dental X-rays, prepare trays for dental procedures, and educate patients on oral health topics.
There are online programs with virtual clinics as well as in-person programs that offer a more hands-on approach to learning this profession. Just make sure the program is CODA accredited.
The type of licensure you need to work as a dental assistant may vary by state. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) is the national certification board for dental assistants and can provide information on specific certification/licensure you need based on your state.
The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification offered by the DANB is a common national certification required in most states. You may also get certified as a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) through American Medical Technologists (AMT).
CDA certification and RDA certification have some slight variations. You must graduate from a CODA-approved dental program to earn CDA certification, but you may be able to get RDA certification through multiple pathways beyond program completion that include prior work experience or previous clinical military experience. Whatever license or certification you earn, just make sure it’s the right one for your particular state.
To earn licensure to work as a dental assistant in your state, you must take and pass state and national exams.
The DANB exam is the national exam for dental assistants. This exam consists of three components: General Chair Assisting, Infection Control, and Radiation Health and Safety. These components range from 100 to 120 questions, with about 75 to 90 minutes to complete each section.
You can apply for state-specific exams through the DANB website, which lists the required exams for each state. Some states require RDA certification while others may require EFDA certification or other job titles.
To prepare for your exam, look for free practice exams and other resources online or via the DANB website. There are also print resources that can be purchased online or in bookstores. Once you’ve passed your exam, you’ve checked all of the boxes and it’s time to apply for local dental assistant jobs in your area.
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US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319091.htm#st.” Accessed October 19, 2022.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Dental Assistants, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm. ” Accessed October 19, 2022.
Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. “Salary and Benefits, https://www.danb.org/en/The-Dental-Community/Dental-Assistants/Salary-and-Benefits.aspx.” Accessed October 19, 2022.
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