What does a Dental Assistant do?

What is a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants have many tasks, ranging from patient care to record keeping, in a dental office. Their duties vary by state/province and by the dentists’ offices where they work. Almost all dental assistants work in dentists' offices.

What does a Dental Assistant do?

Assistants who do lab tasks, such as making casts of a patient’s teeth, work under the direction of a dentist. They might prepare materials for a cast of teeth or create temporary crowns. Some responsibilities of a dental assistant include:

  • Working with patients to make them comfortable in the dental chair and to prepare them for treatments and procedures
  • Sterilizing dental instruments
  • Preparing the work area for patient treatment by setting out instruments and materials
  • Helping dentists by handing them instruments during procedures
  • Keeping patients’ mouths dry by using suction hoses or other equipment
  • Instructing patients in proper dental hygiene
  • Processing x rays and doing lab tasks under the direction of a dentist
  • Keeping records of dental treatments
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Working with patients on billing and payment

All dental assistants do tasks such as helping dentists with procedures and keeping patient records, but there are four regulated tasks that assistants may also be able to do, depending on the state where they work, including:

  • Coronal polishing- removing soft deposits such as plaque, giving teeth a cleaner appearance.
  • Sealant application- painting a thin, plastic substance over teeth that seals out food particles and acid-producing bacteria to keep teeth from developing cavities.
  • Fluoride application- applying fluoride directly on the teeth as another anti-cavity measure.
  • Topical anesthetics application- some dental assistants may be qualified to apply topical anesthetic to an area of the patient’s mouth, temporarily numbing the area.

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How to become a Dental Assistant

There are several possible paths to becoming a dental assistant. Some states and provinces require assistants to graduate from an accredited program and possibly pass a state exam. In other states, there are no formal educational requirements. Most states regulate what dental assistants may do, but that varies. Accredited programs include classroom and laboratory work in which students learn about teeth, gums, jaws, and other areas that dentists work on and the instruments that dentists use. These programs also include supervised, practical experience. On-the-job training often is required regardless of what educational path a dental assistant takes.

Dentists have their own ways of doing things, and their assistants may need time to become comfortable working with them. Dental assistants who do not get formal education learn their duties through on-the-job training. The dentist or other dental assistants in the office teach the new assistant dental terminology, the names of the instruments, how to do daily tasks, how to interact with patients, and other activities necessary to help keep the dental office running smoothly. Although some job duties are easy to learn, others may take a few months before new dental assistants are knowledgeable about and comfortable doing all their tasks without help.

Dental assistants must follow specific rules and protocols to help dentists treat a patient. Dental assistants must work closely with dentists and patients. Sometimes patients are in extreme pain or mental stress, and the assistant must be sensitive to their emotions. Dental assistants must have good listening skills. They need to follow directions from a dentist or dental hygienist so they can help treat patients and do tasks such as taking an x ray. Dental assistants must have excellent organizational skills. They should have the correct tools in place for a dentist or dental hygienist to use when treating a patient.

What is the workplace of a Dental Assistant like?

Almost all dental assistants work in dentists' offices. Dental assistants work under the supervision of dentists and may work closely with dental hygienists in their day-to-day activities.