Dental Assistants are in Great Demand

Thanks to a high population of baby boomers and a trend towards better dental care, North American dentists enjoy a healthy demand for their services. But they can't do it alone.

The trusty dental assistant is right there beside the dentist, handing over instruments, preparing materials, and holding the hands of frightened patients.

Dental assistants aid dentists in the day-to-day care and treatment of patients. In many ways they serve as nurses to a dentist.

Population growth and the fact that more middle-aged people are keeping their natural teeth are fueling a demand for dental services. This is creating opportunities for dental assistants.

As dentists' workloads increase, they will need to hire assistants to perform routine tasks so that they can devote time to more detailed procedures.

"The dental industry is in critical need of dental assistants," says Karen Spradlin, a dental assisting instructor with the Cincinnati Dental Assistants Society.

"There is a severe shortage. One dentist told me that I could have 122 dental assisting students this year and it wouldn't be nearly enough to cover what the industry in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky needs. The demand is exceedingly greater than the supply."

Robert W. Chatmas, president of the Dental Assistant Training Schools Inc. in Colorado, agrees. "Every dentist is looking for a dental assistant," he says. "I'm very optimistic about the future."

In addition to the increasing demand, more job openings for dental assistants will arise as older assistants leave the occupation. For many, this entry-level occupation serves as a stepping-stone to more highly skilled and higher paying jobs.

Other assistants leave the job to take on family responsibilities, return to school or for other reasons, resulting in a constant turnover rate.

Frances Kirkpatrick, chairperson of a certified dental assisting program, agrees. She adds that the need will always be there due to a constant turnover as older assistants, mostly women, move on to other dental-related professions or leave the profession altogether.

"Our graduates do not have difficulty in finding employment, as long as they are willing to move," she says, adding that those who relocate to a large city center or small community usually do quite well in finding a job with a practicing dentist.

A dental assistant acts similarly to a nurse. They can be found right next to the big, scary chair as the dentist examines and treats patients.

"Assistants must be a dentist's 'third hand,'" says Spradlin. "Therefore, dentists look for people who are reliable, can work well with others, and have good manual dexterity."

Assistants hand instruments and materials to dentists, and keep patients' mouths dry by using suction or other devices. They also sterilize instruments and equipment, prepare trays for dental procedures and instruct patients in oral health care.

More experienced assistants may prepare materials for making impressions, expose radiographs and process dental X-ray film as directed by a dentist. They may even remove sutures, apply anesthetics or place rubber dams on the teeth to isolate them for individual treatment.

The most important aspect of the job, however, is to make the patient as comfortable as possible in the dental chair, prepare them for treatment and obtain dental records. As a result, a good dental assistant must be able to work well with people.

The attitudes of patients can vary, depending upon their feelings about the dental profession. Dental assistants will thus often be called upon to hold the patient's hand and help calm him or her down.

"It's a demanding profession as you have to work closely with the individual [patient]," Kirkpatrick says. "The person in care is often apprehensive."

"You really have to be a people person since you often have to deal directly with patients in a stressful situation," says Chatmas.

It's important to note, however, that dental assistants are not the same things as dental hygienists. They perform entirely different tasks. A hygienist only cleans teeth and performs advanced services, and has often has a two- or three-year degree in their field.

So what does it take to be a dental assistant?

That depends upon where you live. Each state has different laws regarding the hiring of assistants. Some require that the person be licensed. Some only require registration. Some have no requirements at all and allow dentists to hire people with no medical or dental experience at all.

According to Chatmas, there are basically three different types or levels of assistants in the U.S. The first requires no license and can be hired on sight. The second level is a registered dental assistant, or RDA. Any assistant looking to be registered must have 18 months of experience and take an exam.

The third level requires certification as an expanded duty dental assistant. Certification is available through the Dental Assisting National Board.

Candidates may qualify to take the certification examination by graduating from an accredited training program, or by having two years of full-time experience as a dental assistant.

From there, a dental assistant does have the ability to move on, although, according to Chatmas and Spradlin, few of them do it without going back to school first.

"A dental assistant may proceed in a dental lab," Spradlin says. "This means that they never see patients. They simply make the crowns, bridges, inlays, [and] dentures on the models that the dentists send them.

"They may go on to be dental claims examiners working for insurance companies," Spradlin continues. "They may decide to be dental supply representatives and sell products to dentists. Some may be employed as dental equipment managers or they may even repair equipment.

"Some may be surgical assistants and work in hospitals, [and] some may choose to work in only one specialty of dentistry, such as orthodontics, oral surgery, or pediatric dentistry." Others may move up to the front to become office managers or go back to school to become dental hygienists.

There are a number of programs available to anyone interested in becoming a dental assistant. College is not always necessary, but a high school diploma is.

While you don't necessarily require experience in the field to get a job, most dentists will tell you they'd rather hire someone with experience than a complete novice.

According to the American Dental Association, there are about 245 dental assisting programs in the U.S. alone. Most programs take about a year or less to complete. Two-year programs offered in community and junior colleges lead to an associate degree.

"Most assistants learn their skills on the job, though many are trained in dental assisting programs offered by community and junior colleges, trade schools, and technical institutes," says Spradlin.

Chatmas says many dentists are willing to help pay for training if a novice assistant decides to become certified. Indeed, Chatmas's program, DATS, is designed specifically to help train novices in the basics of the trade.

As the need for dentists in North America increases, the need for assistants will rise as well. The demand could grow quite rapidly, as many dentists tend to hire two or three assistants to help out in their work.

Thus, for someone who likes people, enjoys a healthy lifestyle (or at least a healthy set of gums), and is responsible and trustworthy, becoming a dental assistant could be a rewarding career.


American Dental Association
The ADA has information on dental assisting

American Dental Assistants Association
Provides educational and career resources, and more, for dental assistant professionals

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