A dental assistant or dental hygienist performs office and lab duties in a dental practice. An assistant also offers patient care, and may be allowed to perform some procedures, the rules for which vary by state. This may include anything from taking x-rays, to removing plaque, applying fluoride and sealants to teeth, or simply making sure that the patient is seated comfortably.
Specific dental assistant tasks may vary by office. However, dental assistants generally work either in dental labs or office operations, or work under dentists treating patients. Some work in all three areas.
Working with patients, a dental assistant often makes them comfortable and gets them ready for the dentist’s test. A dental assistant also performs other duties such as sterilizing and laying out dental equipment for the dentist, giving the dentist the instruments during an exam, taking and processing X-rays, removing sutures, and applying anti-cavity agents on teeth and anesthetics to gums.
In the office, a dental assistant answers the phone and sets patients’ appointments. They also perform other office duties like welcoming new patients and processing their information, setting up, managing and retrieving patient files, processing in-office payments and issuing invoices, and ordering as well as receiving office supplies.
Lab duties for a dental assistant may include cleaning and polishing dentures, mouth guards, or other removable appliances, making plaster casts using mouth and teeth impressions, and performing orthodontic measurements.
Dental assistants work in well-lit, clean environments. They usually work near dental chairs in order to arrange materials, medication and instruments and give them to the dentist. They wear masks, gloves, protective clothing and eye-wear to guard themselves and patients against contagious diseases. Dental assistants also follow safety procedures to minimize the risks of using radiography equipment.
Although many dental assistants get on-the-job training, some states require dental assistants to go through accredited training programs in community colleges usually for one year. High school students who want to become dental assistants should pursue courses in chemistry, biology, and health and office practice.
Some states register or license dental assistants. Requirements often include finishing an accredited training program and then passing a written examination. As the rules vary from state to state, it’s important to know the rules in the state where one wants to work. In Oregon, the Oregon Dental Association is the governing body. Local dentists are required to ensure each of its’ dental assistants and hygienists are licensed appropriately.
As well as training and getting licensed, dental assistants need certain personal qualities. They should be reliable and service-oriented, should be team players, and should have great manual dexterity. They should also have great communication skills, and great critical thinking skills to help them find new solutions to problems.