Dental assistants are trained to do a wide range of tasks that support the functioning of a dentist's office. Depending on the regulations established by the state where they work and their employer's needs, dental assistants may provide primarily clinical services or administrative services, or they may be expected to perform a combination of both.
In terms of clinical roles, dental assistants typically assist dentists during procedures so they can operate more efficiently. An assistant may need to make sure the patient is comfortable, organize supplies, hand tools and materials to the dentist, and possibly take x-rays and conduct other diagnostic tests, as supervised by the dentist. Other functions may include sterilizing the tools and treatment rooms.
Dental assistants may also be required to work with patients in a clerical way. They may be asked to update patient records, schedule appointments, answer billing and insurance questions, and take payments for services.
Required Skill Sets
Given the diversity of the tasks performed by dental assistants, it's not surprising that professionals need several different skill sets.
- Dental assistants must have strong interpersonal skills. They need to be able to listen carefully and communicate clearly with both patients and co-workers. Since they often interact with people who are fearful or in pain, it's helpful for dental assistants to be able to express compassion and reassurance while still maintaining a professional demeanor.
- Dexterity is an important trait for dental assistants as they often work with small tools in compact spaces. Because they are responsible for keeping these tools and spaces prepared for use, dental assistants also need to be organized and detail-oriented.
- Dental assistants need to possess an aptitude for computers and other technological equipment. Every day they use computers and specialized software to update patient records and handle other administrative tasks. They may also need to use digital imaging equipment, x-ray machines, blood pressure cuffs, and other medical equipment with or without the supervision of a dentist.
Advice From Professional Dental Assistants
We asked two dental assistants to discuss their insight about the career, and they agree that this occupation requires many specific characteristics and abilities, especially strong interpersonal skills when providing patient care.
Arah Ko, an experienced dental assistant at Midas Dental Clinic, says she loves her job and notes, "Dexterity skills and good memory are a must for any dental assistant, but you also need to have good communication skills. Dental assistants often take on receptionist duties, so you need strong administrative and customer service skills."
Evan McCarthy, CEO of SportingSmiles LLC, began his career as a dental assistant. He says, "Other than having the obvious certifications, I think being able to effectively and authentically communicate with customers/patients is a needed skill. You need both empathy for patients dealing with severe pain as well as the ability to communicate clearly with your fellow employees. Dental assistants are often the first point of contact before seeing the dentist. Patients are often in distress and they find it difficult to speak, so being able to read non-verbal cues will help your patient immensely. Having a nurturing personality is also a bonus for this type of work."
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist
Dental assistants play a different role than dental hygienists. Assistants typically work directly under the supervision of a dentist, assisting in procedures. Hygienists, on the other hand, generally work independently on cleaning patients' teeth, educating patients on proper oral hygiene, taking x-rays if needed, and relaying information to the dentist. Depending on where they work, both hygienists and assistants may be asked to perform some administrative duties.