What is a Dental Assistant & What Do They Do?

If you have ever been to the dentist, you have probably interacted with a dental assistant. Dental assistants help dentists and hygienists provide safe and high-quality care for their patients. 

A dental assistant is someone who schedules appointments, maintains medical records, and assists with dental procedures. You might make a great dental assistant if you have good attention to detail and love helping people. 

This guide will go over what a dental assistant is, where they work, their responsibilities, and more. 

What is a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants are often confused with dental hygienists. While the two jobs are similar, they are not the same. 

A dental assistant handles both administrative and clinical duties like answering phone calls and cleaning equipment. Dental assistants typically split their time working at the front desk of a dentist's office and working alongside the dentist, helping with procedures and sterilizing equipment. 

>> Read More: Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

What Does a Dental Assistant Do? Responsibilities & Duties

Almost all dental assistants spend their days interacting with patients and helping to keep a dentist’s office running smoothly. Some of the responsibilities of a dental assistant include: 

  • Assisting with procedures. During a procedure like a cavity filling, the dental assistant provides suction, helps keep the patient in the correct position, and holds instruments for the dentist.
  • Taking X-rays. Dental assistants take X-rays of patients' teeth to look for disease, cavities, or bone problems in the jaw.
  • Maintaining medical records. Medical records must be accurate and up to date to ensure that patients get the care they need and that insurance can be billed correctly. 
  • Scheduling appointments. Dental assistants help patients get routine cleanings or procedures scheduled. They also send out appointment reminders and follow up with patients who miss their scheduled times. 
  • Dealing with billing and payment. Assistants working in the front desk of an office are responsible for billing for procedures and either charging the patient or submitting claims to insurance companies for reimbursement.
  • Cleaning rooms. Each room must be cleaned, sanitized, and restocked between patient appointments. Dentists and hygienists expect to have their workspace clean and organized before their patients are escorted back to the room. 
  • Sterilizing equipment. Some equipment like drills and mirrors are re-used for different patients. Because these tools come in contact with saliva and blood, they must be cleaned thoroughly and sterilized after each use. 
  • Monitoring vital signs. For patients getting an invasive procedure or being treated with nitrous oxide, dental assistants can help keep them safe by monitoring their heart rate and blood pressure.

What a Dental Assistant & Patient Interaction Looks Like

Often, a dental assistant is the first person a patient sees when they come to the office for an appointment. Dental assistants may do the following with patients:

  1. Great the patient. The dental assistant will greet the patient and confirm their name, date of birth, and insurance information. 
  2. Note medical history. The dental assistant can help the patient fill out the necessary paperwork and may ask questions about medical history, allergies, and any dental problems the patient has been experiencing. They may also take a set of vital signs including heart rate and blood pressure. 
  3. Guide patient to room. Dental assistants often escort patients back to the dental chair and help them get comfortable. Patients are often given the option to wear headphones or watch a movie during their dental cleanings to help them stay calm. 
  4. Take X-rays. Some dental assistants are specially trained to take X-ray images of a patient's teeth. Before they take an X-ray, the dental assistant will make sure that the patient's torso is covered by a lead gown. 
  5. Provide dentist assistance. If the patient needs dental work like a cavity filling, the dental assistant will hand tools to the dentist while they work and provide suction to keep saliva from accumulating in the patient's mouth. 
  6. Document procedure notes. The dental assistant is usually responsible for documenting whatever procedure is performed including tools used, depth of cavities, and extent of tooth decay. 
  7. Handle billing & insurance. At the end of the appointment, the dental assistant will help settle any copays, send a bill to the insurance company, and help the patient schedule their next appointment. 

Where Do Dental Assistants Work?

A dentist's office isn’t the only place a dental assistant can work. It may surprise you to learn that there are a variety of work locations for dental assistants looking for jobs. 

  • Private dentists’ offices. The most common place for an assistant to work is in a private dentist's office. This is an office that is owned by one or two dentists, and the assistant is usually expected to learn the dentists' preferences and adhere to the individual dentist’s policies and procedures. 
  • Corporate dental practices. A corporate dental office is like a chain restaurant, where one company owns and creates policies for many offices. These offices may provide more flexibility in schedules and work locations than private practices. 
  • Hospitals. Occasionally, dental assistants can find work in hospitals that provide emergency dental care or dental care for long-term hospital patients. Dental assistants in hospitals often need extra certifications to assist in complex cases or surgeries. 
  • Insurance companies. Experienced dental assistants can find work as insurance coordinators, looking through healthcare documentation to ensure that offices are billing fairly and accurately. 
  • Military Healthcare Facilities. Programs like the Navy Dental Assistant Program train dental assistants to work in military healthcare facilities and care for the dental health of active duty, reserve, and veteran members of the military.  
  • Correctional facilities. Many healthcare providers find that providing healthcare to underserved populations in prisons and jails can be very meaningful. These jobs often offer excellent benefits and higher pay than traditional offices. 
  • Emergency dental care. If you are looking for a job with weekend or night-shift hours, you might consider working in emergency dental care. These assistants help with tooth problems that are extremely painful for patients and cannot wait for regular business hours. 
  • Private orthodontists’ offices. Dental assistants who want to specialize can get an orthodontic certification. These assistants may take more molds and pictures of teeth and help apply and tighten braces and other corrective devices. 

A typical day for a dental assistant requires a lot of patient interaction and walking around. Some dental assistants may have to do heavy lifting or spend time cleaning. 

Dental assistants should be comfortable spending long hours on their feet and dealing with all different kinds of people and personalities. 

Skills Required to Be a Dental Assistant

Here are some of the most common skills you need to work as a dental assistant:

  • Communication. Good verbal and written communication between the assistant, hygienist, and dentist is essential to providing excellent patient care. 
  • Organization. Dental assistants must keep paperwork, supplies, schedules, and expensive equipment organized and well-maintained. A missing or misplaced tool can be disastrous in the middle of a procedure. 
  • Dexterity. Dental assistants often must hold dental tools or suction catheters in awkward and uncomfortable positions for long periods. Dental procedures require great hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity. 
  • Attention to detail. Working in healthcare means dental assistants must be aware of small changes in patient condition, be able to identify subtle differences in equipment, and avoid any mistakes in documentation and paperwork. 
  • Medical terminology. Understanding medical terminology is one of the best ways to improve communication between the entire healthcare team. 
  • People skills. People often get anxious when seeing a dentist. Dental assistants need to have excellent people skills to help patients manage their fears and feel as comfortable as possible sitting in the dentist's chair. 

Dental Assistant Salaries & Job Outlook

Dental assisting is a good career choice with great job security and a decent salary. The median dental assistant salary is about $46,540 per year or $22.38 per hour. 

Dental assistants in some states, like Minnesota ($58,890) and Delaware ($52,500), earn more on median than those in other states like Arkansas ($36,570) and Louisiana ($36,180).

The job outlook for dental assistants is a little bit better than the national average. Job opportunities for dental assistants are expected to increase by 7% between 2022 and 2032. 

Education, Certification, & Licensing Requirements for Dental Assistants

Each state has its own requirements for dental assistants including education, certification, and licensing.

Some states allow you to work as a dental assistant without going to school or prior experience. For example, Utah, only require dental assistants to have CPR or Basic Cardiac Life Support (BCLS) certifications. Others, like Texas, require certification to perform specific tasks like taking X-ray images or monitoring nitric oxide medication. 

Still, other states have even stricter requirements. For example, Tennessee requires dental assistants to be licensed and registered with the state along with completing 24 hours of continuing education each year. 

When you're ready to start applying for jobs, be sure to check the job post of the dental assistant role you're interested in to see what's required.

Education Requirements

If you want to become a dental assistant, you will need a high school diploma or GED to get started. 

After that, you can attend a dental assisting program either online, through a community college, or at a technical college. 

Certification Requirements

States that require certification often accept assistants who have passed a certification test like the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB) exam. Some states require state-specific certification exams.  

There are several different DANB program options including: the National Entry-Level Dental Assistant, Certified Dental Assistant, Certified Orthodontic Assistant, Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant, and more. 

Dental assistants hoping to perform X-ray imaging must pass a radiology certification exam. While X-rays that are performed correctly are generally safe for the dental assistant and patient, exposure to high levels of radiation can cause problems like cancer and birth defects. For this reason, dental assistants must receive proper training and certification. 

In addition to dental assisting and radiology certifications, dental assistants in states like Indiana may be encouraged to take an exam that will allow them to monitor patients being treated with nitrous oxide. Even if certified, dental assistants cannot administer or monitor the administration of nitrous oxide without the direct supervision of a licensed dentist. 

Almost all dental offices require their assistants to get and maintain a CPR certification. While dentistry is usually safe, any type of healthcare provider should know how to provide emergency first aid. 

Licensing Requirements

Because dental assistants deal with protected health information, patient safety, and some medications, many states require licensing, a permit, or registration through their State Board of Dentistry.

Usually, this requires a fee paid to the state, a completed background check, and an application with a valid Social Security number, address, and other form of identification. 

How to Become a Dental Assistant

If you are hoping to become a dental assistant, you can follow these simple steps to get there. All in, it typically takes 4 months to 2 years to become a dental assistant.

  1. Obtain your high school diploma or GED. Dental assisting programs, whether online or at a technical college, require candidates to have a high school diploma or GED before the first day of class. If you live in a state that does not require certification, you will still need a high school diploma or GED to get a job. 
  2. Get the necessary training & education. There are many dental assisting training programs to choose from. You can choose an online or in-person program, and some can be completed in just a few weeks. No matter what type of program you choose, make sure to find one that is accredited and has a high exam passing rate. You can learn more about how much dental assistant classes cost here.
  3. Pass your certification exam. After completing your training, you will have to sit for a certification exam. Certification exams are taken at testing centers or with an online proctor, and the DANB exam costs $450 to take. Make sure you study hard and are well-prepared before scheduling your test. 
  4. Register with your state. If your state requires a license or registration, you can usually fill out an application and submit a background check through your State Board of Dentistry. Training programs can usually help you with the licensing or registration process. 
  5. Find and apply for jobs. The easiest way to look for jobs is to use job search engines like Indeed or LinkedIn. These websites will often help you build a resume and save your information, allowing you to apply for multiple jobs in very little time. 
  6. Keep your certification or registration up to date. It is important that you not let your certifications expire. If you do, you will have to pay higher renewal fees or even retake your entire examination. To maintain your DANB certification, you must have a current CPR certificate, complete your continuing education requirements, and pay a yearly renewal fee. 

Your new Medical Assistant career starts here

Get a healthcare job or your tuition is on us.
By clicking “Apply Now” you agree to receive text, email, and phone marketing messages. Reply “STOP” to cancel.

Spots are limited. We accept qualified applicants on a first come, first served basis.

  • 4 month online medical assistant program

  • Receive your medical assistant certification

  • Tuition comes with 100% money back guarantee

  • Morning or evening classes

  • 100% online followed by in-person externship

  • Job coaching services

Your new Pharmacy Technician career starts here

Get a healthcare job or your tuition is on us.
By clicking “Apply Now” you agree to receive text, email, and phone marketing messages. Reply “STOP” to cancel.

Spots are limited. We accept qualified applicants on a first come, first served basis.

  • 4-month online pharmacy technician program

  • Earn your pharmacy technician certification

  • Tuition comes with 100% money back guarantee

  • Evening classes available

  • 100% online followed by in-person externship

  • Job coaching services

Become a Certified Phlebotomist Tech

Get your NHA Certification in just 4 weeks
By clicking “Apply Now” you agree to receive text, email, and phone marketing messages. Reply “STOP” to cancel.
Spots are limited. We accept qualified applicants on a first come, first served basis.
  • 4-week phlebotomy training program
  • NHA certification prep
  • Evening classes available
  • 100% online
  • Affordable, flexible, learning

Your Surgical Technologist career starts here

Get a full-time healthcare job or your tuition is on us.
By clicking “Apply Now” you agree to receive text, email, and phone marketing messages. Reply “STOP” to cancel.
Spots are limited. We accept qualified applicants on a first come, first served basis.
  • 4-month Online Surgical Tech Course

  • Receive your National NCCT TS-C Certificate

  • 100% Online Followed by In-Person Training

  • Job Interview Prep and Resume Services

  • Land a Full Time Job or your Tuition is on Us

  • Clinicals Included for Eligible California Students