Hack College Presents: How To Become A Dental Assistant

dental assistant

Are you one of the few who not only enjoyed their annual dental check-ups, but might actually consider a career working inside the mouths of others? If so, you are picking the right time to get involved in the field of dental care, industry demand for skilled dental assistants is on the rise.

Part I. The Industry

When you go to the “dentist,” you most likely spend the majority of your appointment with a dental hygienist or a dental assistant. These professionals perform a variety of functions as part of the dental process.

dental hygienist is the one who typically performs the teeth cleaning, examines for oral diseases, applies preventive care measures and educates patients on their oral health needs.

dental assistant works in tandem with the hygienist or the dentist in whatever capacity needed to complete the task at hand. Sometimes they hand the hygienist tools during a procedure or use the suction tool while the hygienist is cleaning. The kind of tasks and work that a dental assistant is certified to perform can vary because each state has their own board of dentistry and each is responsible for directing and regulating state dental training and education programs.

An Overview of the Field

Dental hygienists typically need at least an associate’s degree in dental hygiene — bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees in dental hygiene are also available but are less common.

The education and career path of a dental assistant varies widely depending on the state where the individual wants to practice. Some states require graduation from an accredited program or a passing mark on the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), which earns a DANB certificate. Other states don’t require any formal educational requirements. It is wise to check this directory, compiled by the DANB in conjunction with state dental board to see the regulations and training required by your state.

According to the BLS, hygienists typically:

  • Remove tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth
  • Apply sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
  • Take and develop dental x-rays
  • Keep track of patient care and treatment plans
  • Teach patients oral hygiene, such as how to brush and floss correctly

Assistants typically:

  • Seat patients in the dental chair and prepare the work area, and instruments for hygienist and dentist procedures
  • Assist in any of the procedures listed above
  • Process the x rays and lab
  • Keep dental treatment records and patient appointments
  • Assist with patient billing and payment

Depending on the state, assistants may be able to help with procedures such as coronal polishing (like plaque removal), applying sealant to protect teeth from cavities, applying fluoride as an anti-cavity measure and application of topical anesthetics to numb areas of the mouth. Some may also help with crowns or a cast for teeth.

In order to perform these functions some states require assistants to take the Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA). To take the exam the assistant needs some amount of work experience or a certificate from an accredited program in one of the 35 states that allow assistants to perform such procedures.

You can start as early as high school to prepare for a career in dentistry with good grades and focused courses in areas such as courses biology, chemistry, and anatomy. Most assistant programs take about a year and will earn you a certificate or diploma through a community college. Hygienists take a similar course load to assistants but they will also study anatomy, physiology, nutrition, radiography, and periodontology (the study of gum disease). Hygienist programs are often 1.5 to two years.

The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), part of the American Dental Association, approved more than 285 dental-assisting training programs in 2011, which cover coursework on teeth, gums, jaws, and dental instruments and procedures. These programs also typically include some kind of supervised, practical experience.

Salary and Career Outlook

The role of dental assistants and hygienists are predicted to grow in demand, around 31-38% percent between 2010 and 2020, which is a rate much faster than average as compared with other professions. The BLS predicts that ongoing research linking oral and general health will increase the need for more preventive dental care. New and increasingly accurate technologies are helping dentists diagnose oral health problems, which will require more care and treatment. For example, new tests use saliva samples so a hygienist can spot oral cancer earlier.

As their practices expand, dentists will need to hire more hygienists to perform routine dental care, so that they are able to see more patients. As the large baby boomer population ages and people are able to keep more of their original teeth than previous generations, the field of dentistry will need to maintain and treat these teeth, which will drive hygienist and assistant services, according to the BLS.

In 2010 the average dental assistant made $33,470 per year or $16.09 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,680, and the top 10 percent earned more than $47,090. The median annual wage of dental hygienists was $68,250 in May 2010. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,000, and the top 10 percent earned more than $93,820.

Part II. Top U.S. Programs

The CODA, is the nationally recognized accrediting body approved by the United States Department of Education (USDE) to accredit dental and dental-related education programs conducted at the post-secondary level. As you begin your research it is wise to start looking for programs that are CODA-accredited. The DANB provides a list of CODA-accredited dental assistant programs in the 50 states, so does the ADA, which has a directory for CODA-accredited dental assisting, hygiene and lab programs.

The benefit of a CODA program ensures that the program has been vetted for quality, that students will have access to federal financial aid, and that many employers have confidence in the quality of the degree and training upon graduation. In some cases, it is also easier to transfer credits if they are from a CODA approved program.

There are many different kinds of programs that can prepare potential assistants and hygienists for the field. The following are a few programs that offer students some flexibility with online courses, and advanced degree opportunities. With such a wide array of options it might be advantageous to start out at your local community college through the academic advising office, and then push your search further out to determine the best route for you. If you are comfortable speaking with your own dentist staff or making some phone calls you can also get advice from professionals on the route that they took to arrive at your future occupation.

University of Maine (online & Bangor, MN)

  • Specialized degrees: Bachelor of Science and an Associates of Science in Dental Hygiene as well as a Certificate in Dental Assisting Offered on the Bangor campus. The program is centered around the campus Dental Health Clinic,  which provides students with access to actual patients in the community. All programs prepare students for the DANB exam.
  • Industry perception: The Dental Assisting Program is the only CODA accredited assisting program in the state, and it is one of a few in the country that provide students with hands-on application of the materials they learn in classes – at both the associates and bachelors level.
  • Tuition: Tuition per credit hour is $190 for Maine residents and $460 for non-residents.
  • Financial aid: The Office of Student Financial Aid administers various federal, state and university aid programs to help University of Maine students finance their education.

Weber State University (online & Ogden, UT)

  • Specialized degrees: Weber offers an Associates of Science and Bachelors of Science in Dental Hygiene. Students are able to take any of the prerequisite degrees online and through independent study, but the dental-related course requirements are only offered on-campus. BS graduates are qualified to be dental office clinicians as well as take on roles in marketing, community health and dental hygiene education. AS graduates are qualified for positions as dental office clinicians.

  • Industry perception: Weber graduates earn 99 percent or better passing rates on the Dental Hygiene National Board Examination, according to cumulative data since 1977, and 100 percent of WSU students report that they are employed in their desired setting upon graduation. More than 90 percent of AS students go onto complete their bachelor’s degree.

  • Tuition: Tuition is $356.60 per credit hour for residents and $1085.48 for non-residents, not including tuition and fees.

  • Financial aid: Weber students are eligible for federal financial aid through the FAFSA as well as scholarship and aid options unique to Weber students. More information is listed on the aid website.

Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences

  • Specialized degrees: The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) offers an online bridge program that allows practicing dental hygienists who have an associate’s degree to obtain a Master’s Degree in Dental Hygiene without getting the bachelor’s degree first. The courses are offered online with 2-3 visits to campus.
  • Industry perception: The bridge program is one-of-a kind — the only program in the nation to offer such an opportunity. This is the kind of program that a professional could pursue long-term, after several years working in the field.
  • Tuition: The tuition rate is $850 per credit hour for the 18-credit bridge program.
  • Financial aid: The Office of Student Financial Services can help any student fill out the FAFSA and determine eligibility for any other funding options.

The University of New Mexico (online)

  • Specialized degrees: UNM offers a Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene degree offered online by the UNM School of Medicine, Department of Surgery – in the Dental Hygiene Division. UNM also offers a Certificate and an Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene. The program is designed so a practicing hygienist can enroll as a part time student, or finish the program as a full-time continuing student.
  • Industry perception: The U.S. News and World Report rates UNM as 100th in a rank­ing of pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties and 179th in over­all national rank­ings for 2013 – 2014.
  • Tuition: The tuition rates are approximately $1,512.36 per semester for all students.
  • Financial aid: Students are encouraged to fill out the FAFSA to be eligible for aid options, visit the UNM financial aid website and consider contacting the School of Medicine for any funding specific to the program.

Part III. Launching a Career

As you can tell, there are a lot of different ways to get experience in the field and begin your career. Beyond your formal education and training there are some other great ways to get experience in dentistry without paying tuition.

Organizing the Job Search

Volunteer! There are some excellent opportunities that can not only give back to the community, but also provide some great experience to launch your career.

  • The Give Kids A Smile provide screenings, treatments and education to children throughout the United States on the national Give Kids A Smile Day in February. Each year, approximately 450,000 children benefit from more than 1500 events, all because of the efforts of 40,000 or more  annual volunteers.
  • The International Smile Power program delivers dental health care, supplies, education and training to under-served people around the world in places like Bolivia, Guatemala and Haiti, as well as and in U.S. communities such as Seattle, Washington.
  • Dental Volunteer, the global portal for dental volunteers is another option. The portal was created by an American dental student who realized the need for an online directory to connect dental professionals with volunteering opportunities.

There are also internship programs, such as the Bernard and Kathleen Beazley Summer Internship Program, which provides students an opportunity to experience the world of public health dentistry and oral health care. Or the Smile Healthy internship program dedicated to pre-dentist and dental hygienist students enrolled in courses through local community-based organizations and non-profits.

The world of dentistry is growing and expanding, and will continue to do so as technology rapidly improves our understanding of the oral health care. Starting off in a dental assistant’s role is a great way to start in the profession, and will enable you to work up the career ladder for a long and healthy career — which is something you can definitely smile about!