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Dental Assistant


When you go to the dentist, they usually have a sidekick, more professionally known as the dental assistant. Dental assistants assist dentists during the examination and treatment of patients. Dental assistants work with dentists and other health care professionals as chair-side assistants, intra-oral assistants, administrative assistants, community health assistants, or dental education and research assistants. Dental assistants may also become employed by dental manufacturing companies as dental salespersons.

Before a patient enters the examining room, the dental assistant is responsible for cleaning and sterilizing all of the dental equipment and tools and setting up the proper trays for an examination. The dental assistant gets the patient from the waiting room and shows them to the examining room. In this process, they try to make the patient feel as comfortable as possible. Seeing as most people have fear when they go to the dentist, it is important that they are made to feel as comfortable as possible.

The dental assistant works at the dentist's side as they treat patients. They place the paper bib on the patient's chest to keep their clothes clean and dry. The assistant stands next to the dentist and passes him or her the proper tools as needed. Usually the assistant operates the suction device to keep the patient's mouth dry during the procedures.

Depending on the assistant's level of education and expertise they may also prepare materials for making impressions and restorations, take x-rays, apply local anesthetics in surgical procedures or teeth extractions, expose x-rays and process the radiograph film. In general, they do anything that helps a dentist complete their work.

When the examination is complete, the dental assistant will provide the patient with suggestions and education on maintaining oral hygiene and even discuss the results of the x-rays. Depending on the size of the office, the dental assistant may also act as a receptionist and administrative assistant, booking appointments, maintaining inventory, printing out invoices and other related administrative duties.
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  Interests and Skills  
Dental assistants must be able to put patients' fears and anxieties at ease, and be able to communicate well with all types of people. They must have a steady hand and be able to remain calm in all circumstances. Assistants are well organized with excellent time management skills and can cope with emergency situations well.

Acting as the dentist's right-hand, they must be cooperative and enjoy working as part of a team. Dental assistants enjoy dealing with people, having clear guidelines, and operating and maintaining equipment.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Receive and prepare patients for treatment
  • Sterilize, prepare and set out dental instruments and materials
  • Process x-rays
  • Assist dentists during dental procedures
  • Record dental procedures performed
  • Answer telephone calls and co-ordinate appointment schedules
  • Keep records of bank transactions, invoices, treatment plan procedures and payroll
  • Maintain an inventory of supplies
  • If acting as intra-oral assistants:
  • Polish clinical crowns and apply fluoride
  • Apply rubber dams, pit and fissure scalants, desensitizing agents, topical anesthetic, and cavity bases and liners
  • Take preliminary impressions for diagnostic casts
  • Apply and remove matrices and wedges,
  • Expose radiographs (x-rays)
  • Perform periodontal screening and recording
  • Dental assistants in dental offices and treatment rooms generally during regular office hours. However, depending on the hours of the particular office in which they work, evenings and weekends may be required. Their work is performed both sitting down and standing. They work as part of a dental health care team which may include dentists, dental hygienists, dental lab technicians and denturists. They need to wear gloves and masks to protect themselves from infectious diseases. Also, when operating radiographic equipment, such as x-ray machines, they must follow safety procedures to minimize risks from exposure to radiation.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Most dental assistants work in private dentists' offices. Other are employed by community health agencies, hospital clinics, government agencies, dental insurance companies, dental supply companies or in educational institutions.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Advancement opportunities for dental assistants are limited without additional training. With additional training, they may transfer into other dental occupations or become dental assistant educators. Assistants can also become dispensary technicians at dental schools, assist with oral surgeries at hospitals, or become dental hygienists or denturists with the proper training and education. Dental assistants may also decide to become sales representatives for dental companies.

  Educational Paths  
There is no required route for becoming a dental assistant as credentials vary by region. However, most assistants complete a dental assistant program at community college, which usually takes about two years to complete. Upon graduation from an accredited college, assistants are eligible to write the examination and apply for their regional registration.

Those who wish to obtain the title registered dental assistant (RDA) must maintain their registration and membership in local and regional associations. Dental assistants who want to work as intra-oral assistants, meaning that they can take x-rays, to name one task, require the Healing Arts Radiation Protection (HARP) certification. This certification needs to be renewed annually.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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