Exploring this Job
High school students can learn more about the field by talking with assistants in local dentists' offices. The American Dental Assistants Association can put students in contact with dental assistants in their areas. Part-time, summer, and temporary clerical work may also be available in dentists' offices.
Another good way to explore this career is by attending a summer dental camp at a college, university, or other provider. You'll get to try out basic dental tools, talk with dental professionals about their careers, and tour dental treatment facilities. Contact schools in your area to learn what types of opportunities are available.
Dental assistants help dentists as they examine and treat patients. They usually greet patients, escort them to the examining room, and prepare them by covering their clothing with paper or cloth bibs. They also adjust the headrest of the examination chair and raise the chair to the proper height. Many dental assistants take X-rays of patients' teeth and process the film for the dentist to examine. They also obtain patients' dental records from the office files, so the dentist can review them before the examination.
During dental examinations and operations, dental assistants hand the dentist instruments as they are needed and use suction devices to keep the patient's mouth dry. When the examination or procedure is completed, assistants may give the patient after-care instructions for the teeth and mouth. They also provide instructions on infection-control procedures, preventing plaque buildup, and keeping teeth and gums clean and healthy between office visits.
Dental assistants also help with a variety of other clinical tasks. When a dentist needs a cast of a patient's teeth or mouth—used for diagnosing and planning the correction of dental problems—assistants may mix the necessary materials. They may also pour, trim, and polish these study casts. Some assistants prepare materials for making dental restorations, and many polish and clean patients' dentures. Some may perform the necessary laboratory work to make temporary dental replacements.
State laws determine which clinical tasks a dental assistant is able to perform. Dental assistants are not the same as dental hygienists, who are licensed to perform a wider variety of clinical tasks such as scaling and polishing teeth, as well as provide direct treatment based on their assessment of a patient’s needs without the specific authorization of a dentist (known as direct access care). Some states allow dental assistants to apply fluoride to teeth, remove soft deposits such as plaque (i.e., coronal polishing), apply topical anesthetic to an area of a patient’s mouth, isolate individual teeth for treatment using rubber dams, and remove excess cement after cavities have been filled. Dental assistants may also check patients' vital signs, update and check medical histories, and help the dentist with any medical emergencies that arise during dental procedures.
Many dental assistants also perform clerical and administrative tasks. These include receptionist duties, scheduling appointments, managing patient records, keeping dental supply inventories, preparing bills for services rendered, collecting payments, and issuing receipts. Dental assistants often act as business managers who perform all nonclinical responsibilities such as hiring and firing auxiliary help, scheduling employees, and overseeing office accounting.