A chief responsibility of dental assistants is taking and processing dental radiographs. Dental radiographs are one of the most important tools a dentist uses to diagnose teeth and oral tissue problems. Because operating dental X-ray equipment and using various dental radiograph techniques can be complex, dental assistants must be certified to perform this critical aspect of their job. The median annual wages of dental assistants in May 2008 were $32,380, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many dental assistants gain dental radiograph training as part of broader dental assisting diploma programs that last six to 15 months or as part of two-year associate degree programs in dental assisting, according to Education-Portal.com. These programs teach students other skills, such as how to assist with dental procedures and perform lab duties, as well. Students who complete dental assisting programs that feature X-ray training should make sure their program is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association to be eligible to take an X-ray certification exam. Some schools also offer programs that feature a state-approved course specifically on dental radiography to help students meet dental licensure state requirements.
In most states, dental assistants must pass the radiation safety certification exam available through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). In addition, they must complete 100 continuing education hours each year to maintain their certification. The radiation health and safety exam is one of three component exams dental assistants must pass to become a full Certified Dental Assistant (CDA), which is a voluntary credential. The other two components of the CDA exam cover general chairside assisting and infection control principles. To complete this exam, students must have two years of full-time work experience or be a graduate of an accredited dental assisting program. Even though most states only require students to be X-ray certified, the full CDA credential makes dental assistants more employable.
The largest part of the 100-question radiation health and safety certification exam covers the exposure and evaluation of dental radiographs, according to “The DANB Review: Third Edition” used in 2009 dental assisting training programs. Test-takers must understand the various purposes of intraoral radiographs such as occlusal, periapical and bitewing radiographs, as well as extraoral radiographs such as cephalometric or panoramic images. In addition, students must understand how to correct errors related to exposing intraoral radiographs and know what factors influence the quality of exposure.
The radiation health and safety exam, which takes about an hour and 15 minutes to complete, also covers how to use processing solutions and how to avoid processing errors, such as partial images or light and dark images. In addition, the exam tests students’ knowledge of mounting radiographs and of identifying anatomical landmarks. Students also must demonstrate their knowledge of duplicating radiographs and their understanding of the importance of exposing and retaining radiographs.
Practicing radiation safety for both patients and dental radiograph operators themselves is a major portion of the X-ray certification exam as well. The exam tests students' knowledge of parts of X-ray machines that influence radiation safety, such as cone length and filtration concepts. Students also must show they understand the short- and long-term effects of X-rays on human cells and tissues.
2016 Salary Information for Dental Assistants
Dental assistants earned a median annual salary of $36,940 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, dental assistants earned a 25th percentile salary of $30,410, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $45,170, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 332,000 people were employed in the U.S. as dental assistants.