As long as people have teeth, dentists will be in need and the people they employ will still have jobs. This includes the hygienist and an assistant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, the dental assistant job outlook for 2012-2022 is very good.
Dental Assistant Duties
Dental assistants have tasks that vary by state, but only four of them are regulated:
• Coronal polishing
• Applying sealant
• Applying floride
• Applying a topical anesthetic
All dental assistants help the dentist with patient procedures and most also perform some of the following duties:
• Sterilize dental instruments
• Prepare the work area for the dentist
• Set out the instruments and other materials
• Use suction hoses and other equipment as necessary during a procedure
• Provide proper dental hygiene education to patients
• Keep a patient record of dental treatments
• Schedule appointments
• Work out billing and payments for patients
Professional Supervision of Duties
Some work is done by a dental assistant, but only under direct supervision by the dentist in charge. Completing lab tasks and processing x-rays are two such duties that require professional supervision. The lab tasks might require the preparation of materials for casts of teeth or creation of temporary crowns.
Dental assistants may not complete all tasks in every state. The scope of practice is different in each state and may require exams or certifications that allow them to perform certain procedures. Some states require graduation from an accredited program and others make no requirements for specific education.
The Occupational Outlook Handbook is projecting job growth as high as 25 percent over the ten-year period from 2012 to 2022. This is a much higher pattern of growth than the current average for any other occupation. The demand for preventive dental services will continue as research links oral and general health together.
As the baby boomers (born between the late 1940s and early 1960s) are aging, they are also keeping more of their original teeth than previous generations. Therefore, the need for dental care will continue to increase as they maintain and treat those teeth.
Dental Assistant Qualities
There are a few important personal qualities that help the dental assistant perform at a higher level. The habit of attending to details is one such quality. It is important to follow set rules and protocols when helping the dentist to treat patients. The dental assistant must be aware of the things they can do in the state where they work.
Organizational skills are very important. The dental assistant must have excellent skills, especially when preparing the treatment work space for the dentist or hygienist. This includes the identification and placement of instruments for ease of use by the professional about to treat the patient.
A few genuine interpersonal skills help greatly. Dental assistants work closely with others in the office, the dentist and patients. Sometimes, the patients are experiencing mental stress or extreme pain. True empathy and compassion is very comforting and it helps for the dental assistant to be sensitive to those emotions.
The dental assistant must be a good listener, both for the good of the patient as well as the healthcare professionals. Listening is important as directions may fly quickly and proper execution is in the best interests of the patient under treatment. Tasks are easier to perform when the listener gets the directions straight.
Training For Tasks
During 2013, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) put their stamp of approval on more than 250 training programs for dental assistants. CODA is an arm of the American Dental Association. Most of the programs are at community colleges and lead to a certificate or diploma. A few programs are 2 years in duration and lead to an associate’s degree. These are less common.
Accredited programs require both classroom and lab work where the students learn about jaws, gums and teeth. They also learn the various treatments a dentist would perform and the instruments a dentist would use. Practical, supervised experiences are part of the well-rounded program.
All of the skills, tasks and know-how that are part of the job, a dental assistant is a very valuable part of the team. Therefore, skimping with compensation would not be the wisest path to take. Compensation in 2012 shows the median annual wage for the dental assistant as $34,500.
This median compensation translates into 50 percent being newer at the job and learning the ropes. Some new hires have only a high school diploma and learn from another dental assistant. They will receive less income.
The higher end 50 percent receiving more than the median have been on the job and have more experience. They are often the ones who teach new hires to be dental assistants. This group teaches dental terminology, instrument names, method of completing daily tasks and patient interaction.