Dental assistants have numerous office and patient-care responsibilities. They may take patient histories and update records, schedule and confirm appointments, organize billing, take inventory and order supplies for the office. Assistants prepare patients for dental work by sterilizing equipment, placing dental dams and administering topical anesthetics. During procedures, dental assistants keep a patient's mouth dry and clean and pass instruments to the dentist. They also often instruct patients regarding proper oral care. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that many assistants today obtain schooling, but formal education is not required to become a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA).
Check with your state's board of dentistry regarding requirements since regulations differ from state to state. Not all states require credentialing and some insist upon specialized training for certain procedures. For example, in order to operate X-rays and similar equipment, some assistants must obtain radiology certification.
Finish high school. You will need a minimum of a high school diploma or GED to get certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), the agency that administers the credential needed for RDA status.
Get a job in a dentist's office that offers hands-on training for someone with no formal dental schooling. According to the BLS, while states typically dictate the activities a dental assistant may carry out based upon certification, others allow them to perform any duties the dentist requests. The DANB requires applicants without higher education or training to document 3,500 hours of dental assistant work experience within a four-year period in lieu of schooling.
Obtain CPR training from an organization such as the American Heart Association or the American Red Cross. The DANB requires current certification as part of the application process for RDA.
Review for the RDA certification exam. The DANB exam application lists references including study materials and websites that can help you learn the information and review test-taking strategies.
Register and take the RDA exam. The organization mails out results approximately four weeks after the exam.
Apply for registration through your state. Passing the DANB exam may not be enough in itself to allow you to work as an RDA. In Tennessee, for instance, you then need to supply the state dental board with documentation of the DANB certification.
Many states require some sort of schooling for RDA certification since not all states recognize DANB credentials. In California, for instance, applicants must pass a written exam, demonstrate basic skills in a practical exam, take a law and ethics test and complete coursework in coronal polishing, radiation safety, infection control and basic dental practices. Not all states offer reciprocity, so certification in one state does not guarantee that applicants can work in another state without taking further coursework.
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.