If you’re thinking about pursuing a job in the medical field, you may be considering becoming a medical assistant or dental assistant.
Both of these healthcare assistants have the opportunity to help people while making a good wage. In addition, both careers are in high demand and have great job security.
A medical assistant helps doctors perform assessments and bedside procedures, as well as helping with clerical duties like billing and handling insurance questions.
A dental assistant helps a dentist with their procedures as well as billing and scheduling. They might help with fillings, extractions, or crowns. Some dental assistants even help with X-rays and taking molds of teeth.
This guide goes over key similarities and differences between a medical assistant and a dental assistant to help you decide which is the best fit for you.
Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistants Overview
Both of these types of healthcare assistants work alongside others, performing clinical and administrative tasks.
In general, it's about equal difficulty to become a medical assistant or dental assistant as they have similar training and education requirements.
Here’s an overview of how the two compare:
Medical Assistant Overview
A medical assistant works closely with a physician caring for patients. They work in family practice offices, urgent care, dermatologist or chiropractic offices, and more.
Some common responsibilities of a medical assistant include:
- Scheduling appointments
- Billing and insurance
- Taking vital signs
- Recording patient history
- Giving medications
- Taking blood samples
- Giving injections (Note that if medical assistants can give injections varies by state)
- Assisting with in office procedures
To become a medical assistant, you can attend an online or in-person program. After you complete your program, you can take one of the medical assistant certification exams to become officially certified.
While you are not required by law to be certified, you’ll have an easier time getting a job if you are and some facilities prefer to hire certified medical assistants.
Most medical assistants work in offices that are open during regular business hours. You might be able to find urgent care or other jobs that allow you to work evenings, nights, or weekends. Also, there may be some holiday work required. You can learn more about medical assistant hours and schedules here.
Finally, it’s worth noting that there are many types of medical assistants, ranging from family medicine to chiropracty to geriatrics and many more.
Dental Assistant Overview
A dental assistant works alongside a dentist or dental hygienist to care for patients' oral health. They generally work in dentists' offices and may do both administrative and patient care tasks.
Responsibilities of a dental assistant include:
- Answering phones and scheduling appointments
- Maintaining patient dental records
- Overseeing check-in procedures
- Coding and billing
- Preparing patients for procedures
- Assisting with fillings, crowns, and extractions
- Making dental impressions
- Sterilizing dental equipment
- Cleaning up after procedures
The requirements for becoming a dental assistant vary by state. Some states require special licenses and others do not. The cost of dental assistant classes and certification ranges from $1,000 to $10,000 and take between 4 months to 2 years depending on the type of program you choose.
Most dental assistants work weekdays anywhere from around 7 am until 6 pm and are not expected to work during holidays and other times when dentists aren’t working.
Note that dental assistants aren't the same as hygienists. You can compare dental assistants and dental hygienists here.
Key Similarities Between Medical Assistants & Dental Assistants
The biggest similarity between medical assistants and dental assistants is that they get to spend their time caring for patients. Other similarities include:
- Clerical and clinical responsibilities. Both types of assisting typically include a mixture of front office work and clinical patient care.
- Good job outlook. Medical assisting and dental assisting job outlook is expected to grow through 2029.
- Guidance and supervision. Medical and dental assistants both work under the care of a doctor (either a doctor of dental medicine or a medical doctor).
- Ethical responsibility. As healthcare providers, both types of assistants are required to do anything they can to keep their patient safe. They are also required to treat each patient fairly and protect their privacy.
- Opportunity for growth. Medical and dental assisting are great places to start a healthcare career. They both provide a lot of opportunity for growth and advancement.
- Pay. Pay for either career is around $37,000 to $38,000 per year depending on certification and experience.
Key Differences Between Medical Assistants & Dental Assistants
While there are many similarities between the two, it is important to understand the difference between medical and dental assisting. Differences include:
- Certification requirements. Medical assistants can get a few different types of medical assistant certifications offered by four main certification organizations. Dental assistants become a Certified Dental Assistant by completing a program administered by the Dental Assistant National Board.
- Work location. Medical assistants can work in clinics, hospitals, and assisted living centers. Dental assistants work in dentist offices and occasionally in an endodontic office. There is more variety available in medical assisting jobs.
- Available jobs. In 2020, there were about 330,000 dental assisting jobs in the US. There were over twice as many medical assisting jobs—about 720,000.
Medical Assistant & Dental Assistants Salary & Job Growth Comparison
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the salary of a dental assistant is slightly higher than a medical assistant. However, job outlook and growth are better for medical assisting.
So, do medical assistants or dental assistants make more money?
Both careers are great starting points for people who want to advance their career. Medical assistants often grow to become nurses or physicians. Dental assistants may transition into a dental hygienist or dentist role.
Either type of assistant can eventually become an instructor or work in healthcare leadership.
Training & Education Requirements for Medical Assistants & Dental Assistants
Requirements for medical assistants and dental assistants vary from state to state and clinic to clinic. Generally, it is preferable that you become certified in whichever type of assisting you choose.
A medical assistant can pass an exam to become a Certified Medical Assistant, a Registered Medical Assistant, or a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant. All of these certifications can be obtained by completing an accredited program and passing an exam.
Medical assisting programs require a GED to get started and last anywhere from 4 months to 2 years. Courses include basic anatomy and physiology, insurance, and patient care classes. There are both online and in person courses available.
Dental assistants become certified through an organization like the DANB by completing an education program and passing three exams: the General Chairside Assisting, Radiation Health and Safety, and Infection control.
Most dental assisting programs last between 6 and 12 months. You must have a GED to be accepted into a dental assisting program. These programs will include education about basic anatomy, infection control, and insurance coding.
If you live in certain states, it may also be possible to become a dental assistant without certification or going to school, though most states have at least a few requirements you must meet. You can see a full breakdown of state-by-state requirements for dental assistants here.
Comparing a Day in the Life for Medical Assistants & Dental Assistants
Both medical and dental assistants should be prepared to work in a fast-paced environment spending lots of time on their feet. Both types of jobs require good critical thinking, communication, and organizational skills.
A medical assistant typically works 40 hours a week. They may work early morning, daytime, or evening shifts. A typical day starts with checking the schedule and sending appointment reminders to patients. They might also send payment reminders and take inventory of office supplies.
When the first patient arrives, they might get them checked in and get their room ready. They'll work with the patient to obtain an accurate health history and possibly take vital signs including blood pressure and temperature.
When the doctor comes in, they'll help with an assessment and any small procedures that need to be done. They might draw blood or collect urine or saliva samples for lab tests.
After the appointment, they can help the patient get checked out, clarify prescription information, and help them make a follow-up appointment. The medical assistant may then clean the room and equipment to prepare for the next patient.
Dental assistants generally work normal hours on weekdays. Some offices may start slightly earlier or close a little later, but are almost always closed on weekends and holidays.
A dental assistant can help get the day started by reviewing the appointment schedule and sending reminders to patients. They will prepare each exam room with sterile equipment and tools for the dentist.
When a patient is ready, the dental assistant will escort them to the exam room and tell them what to expect. They will update the medical history and find out more about potential problems.
The dental assistant helps the dentist by handing them tools and keeping the patient's mouth clean and dry. They do this using suction hoses and following the dentists instructions. They may apply numbing gel, take x-rays, or get molds of the teeth before the procedure begins.
Dental assistants are also responsible for cleaning up the room and sterilizing any equipment that was used. They can ask questions to make sure the patient understands post-procedure instructions and schedule follow up appointments if needed.
Choosing Between a Medical Assistant and Dental Assistant Career
If you are having a hard time deciding which career path is best for you, consider asking local offices if you can job shadow or take a tour of the place.
Think about which medical assisting specialties you might enjoy, or if you think you would be happy in a dentist office.
Whichever you choose, assisting in the medical field can give you a good salary, meaningful work, and great job security.
>> Learn more: Stepful's Medical Assistant Program
Other Medical Assistant Career Comparisons
Here are some other career comparisons we've written that may help you decide which is best for you:
- Medical Assistant vs. Medical Administrative Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Pharmacy Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Nurse
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Licensed Practical Nurse
- Medical Assistant vs. Patient Care Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Phlebotomist
- Medical Assisting vs. Medical Coder
- Medical Assistant vs. EMT
- Medical Assistant vs. Medical Lab Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Medical Assistant vs. Registered Medical Assistant
- Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist
- Medical Assistant Alternatives
- Healthcare Jobs That Don't Require a College Degree