Dental assistants in lab coats perform a large variety of patient care, laboratory, and office duties. They work next to dentists as they examine and treat the patients. They are not the same thing as dental hygienists, who have licenses to perform clinical tasks. They make their patients as comfortable as possible in their dental chairs, they obtain their dental records and they prepare the patients for treatment. They hand materials and instruments to dentists, and they keep the patients’ mouths clear and dry by using suction and drying devices. They also disinfect and sterilize equipment and instruments, prepare the trays of instruments used in dental procedures, and instruct the patients in oral health care. They prepare the materials for restorations and impressions, take dental x-rays and process the x-ray film. They remove sutures, remove excess cement used during the filling process, apply topical anesthetics or cavity preventing agents to the teeth and gums, and place rubber dams on teeth to isolate them so they can be treated individually.
Dental assistants with laboratory skills make casts of the mouth and teeth from impressions, make temporary crowns, and clean and polish removable dental appliances. They also schedule and confirm patients’ appointments, receive the patients, keep their treatment records, send bills and receive payments, and order dental materials and supplies.
Dental assistants work in dental scrubs in clean, well-lighted environments. They must wear masks, gloves, eyewear, and protective clothing to protect themselves and the patients from infectious diseases. They must follow strict safety procedures to reduce the risks associated with working with x-ray machines. About half work from 35 to 40 hours weekly, and may have to work evenings or Saturdays. In 2002 there were over a quarter of a million in the country, almost all of whom worked in dentists’ offices. A minority worked in physicians’ offices, hospitals, or educational services. About a third worked part-time, sometimes in several dental offices. Job prospects should be excellent, since it is expected that dentists will hire more assistants for performing routine tasks so that they can devote their time to more profitable activities.
Most learn on the job, although increasingly thry train in dental assisting programs which can be completed in a year or less and are offered by junior and community colleges, technical institutes, vocational and trade schools, and the armed forces. In 2002 there were over 250 dental assisting programs accredited by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation. The programs include classroom study, laboratory work, and pre-clinical instruction in the theory and skills needed in dental assisting. Besides the one-year programs, some junior and community colleges offer two-year dental assisting programs which lead to associate degrees. Most states require dental assistants in Landau uniforms to be licensed or registered, which may require passing written and practical examinations. Many states also require continuing education in order to maintain licensure.