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Dental assistants perform a variety of functions around dental offices. Dental assistants learn their trade through on-the-job training or through short training programs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, specific duties and titles of dental assistants are dependent upon state law. Certified and registered dental assistants both must pass examinations to earn their titles.
The purpose of certification is to recognize the efforts of practicing dental assistants to be fluent with the needs of dentists in assisting patients. This way, dentists and patients alike can be more comfortable with the knowledge level of the dental assistant. With only one national certification board, certification can also serve to ensure that the title "dental assistant" is consistent nationwide to allow for job mobility. Registration, on the other hand, is a legal term; many professionals are required or suggested by their state labor authority to become registered or licensed to practice particular functions within their profession.
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The term "certified dental assistant" refers to someone who has met the requirements to become board certified by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). This title has nationwide breadth and is recognized or required by 29 states for practicing dental assistants. Registered dental assistants are registered through state agencies, and their registration is only viable in that state.
The certified dental assistant title is only recognized by the American Dental Association when granted through DANB. Registered dental assistant titles vary in their requirements by state. State licensing boards are the ultimate granting authority, but they may delegate administration of exams to a third party. The DANB administers state-specific exams in some states which require earning a separate registration.
According to the DANB's 2008 salary survey, certified dental assistants earned $2.38 more per hour, on average, than their non-certified peers. However, states that support licensure of assistants as registered dental assistants often limit the work that can be performed by non-registered dental assistants—even those who have obtained certification. In these states, like New Jersey, salary might be higher for registered dental assistants who can perform a broader set of functions in the dental office.