Dental assistants typically do the following:
- Work with patients to make them comfortable in the dental chair and to prepare them for treatments and procedures
- Sterilize dental instruments
- Prepare the work area for patient treatment by setting out instruments and materials
- Help dentists by handing them instruments during procedures
- Keep patients’ mouths dry by using suction hoses and other equipment
- Instruct patients in proper dental hygiene
- Process x rays and complete lab tasks, under the direction of a dentist
- Keep records of dental treatments
- Schedule patient appointments
- Work with patients on billing and payment
Assistants who perform lab tasks, such as making casts of a patient’s teeth, work under the direction of a dentist. They may prepare materials for casts of teeth or to create temporary crowns.
All dental assistants complete tasks, such as helping dentists with procedures and keeping patient records, but there are four regulated tasks that assistants may perform, depending on the state where they work.
- Coronal polishing
- Sealant application
- Fluoride application
- Topical anesthetics application
Coronal polishing, which means removing soft deposits such as plaque, gives teeth a cleaner appearance. In sealant application, a dental assistant paints a thin, plastic substance over teeth that seals out food particles and acid-producing bacteria to keep teeth from developing cavities. Fluoride application, in which fluoride is put directly on the teeth, is another anti-cavity measure. Some dental assistants may be qualified to apply topical anesthetic to an area of a patient’s mouth, temporarily numbing the area to help prepare a patient for procedures.
Not all states allow dental assistants to complete these tasks. Each state regulates the scope of practice for dental assistants and may require them to take specific exams or meet other requirements before allowing them to perform these procedures.
Most programs are offered by community colleges, take about 1 year to complete, and lead to a certificate or diploma. Programs that last 2 years, also offered in community colleges, are less common and lead to an associate’s degree. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), part of the American Dental Association, approved more than 250 dental-assisting training programs in 2013.
Employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 25 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will likely continue to increase the demand for preventive dental services.
The median hourly wage for Dental Assistants is $15.98 in Montana.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Dental Assistants