What's Involved in a Career as a Dental Assistant?

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Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists provide support to practicing dentists by carrying out dental procedures such as oral examinations and preparing diagnostic tests. In addition they have a role in patient care, and many dental assistants also have administrative duties that may include billing, reception work, and stock management. Dental hygienists are generally licensed to carry out dental procedures such as removing tartar and other deposits from teeth. Some states also license dental hygienists to carry out minor surgery-related tasks such as administering anesthetic and removing sutures.

Most dental hygienists work in private practice as an assistant to a practicing dentist. However, some work in schools as dental nurses, and provide dental care to students, referring patients to dentists when necessary.

Orthodontist Assistant

Orthodontist assistants work under supervision of a practicing orthodontist. Their role is similar to that of the dental hygienist, but their work is usually more hands-on, and they don’t normally have administrative duties. Orthodontist assistants work with patients at all stages of an orthodontic procedure as an aide to the orthodontist, and may also carry out some minor procedures alone. They may work in private practice, or in hospitals and clinics.

Dental X-ray Technician

Dental x-ray technicians are trained to carry out laboratory and clinical tasks, with their main role usually in dental radiography. There are four levels of dental x-ray technician (I, II, III and IV), with each successive level of training qualifying a technician for more complex tasks, as well as supervision of newly-qualified technicians. A level IV dental x-ray technician is also qualified to operate dental radiography equipment, as well as working with patients to prepare for x-ray, and developing and interpreting x-rays. Dental x-ray technicians can also work in hospitals and clinics, or in a private practice.

Skills and Training for Dental Assistants

Wherever they work, dental assistants need a mix of people skills and practical aptitude for delicate tasks. Manual dexterity and coordination are important, as well as good interpersonal and communication skills. Dental assistants should be able to work well with both staff and patients.

Dental assistant careers typically require specific education and training. Orthodontist Assistants must complete a one or two year course that has certification from the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Dental x-ray technicians must complete at least a two year Associate’s degree in radiology or x-ray technology, with a Bachelor’s degree preferred for anyone wanting to advance to level IV. Dental Hygienists must obtain at least an Associate’s degree from an accredited dental hygiene school.