Complete Guide to Online Dental Assistant Programs
In modern dentistry, dental assistants have become indispensable for high-quality oral care. Many dental schools today are training dentists in the method of four-handed dentistry, where a dental assistant and dentist work together to more efficiently perform clinical tasks. Online dental assistant programs prepare students for the various tasks related to the position, including sterilizing and preparing instruments for a patient's clinical visit, greeting new patients, and preparing patients in the dental chair. They can remove oral sutures, process X-rays, make oral casts, and perform a variety of other clinical tasks. Some dental assistants also perform administrative duties, such as answering phones and scheduling patient appointments.
Many states have licensure and certification requirements for dental assistants, although the specific requirements vary by state. Some states require dental assistants to graduate from a Commission on Dental Accreditation-accredited dental assisting program and pass an exam to obtain a license.
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What Is an Online Dental Assistant Program?
Dental assistant certificate programs cover the knowledge and skills necessary for a career as a dental assistant. Instructors typically teach about oral health, dental anatomy, diagnostic tests, dental procedures, and office administration.
Online programs use learning management systems that let you sign in at your convenience to access assignments, readings, discussion forums, and other resources. The most common online learning format is asynchronous, meaning that classes have no live meetings. Some courses have weekly deadlines, whereas others are self-paced — you can complete coursework whenever you want as long as you finish by the end of the term.
Dental assisting is a clinical patient care role, so most programs require you to complete an in-person field placement at a dental office in your community.
Dental assisting is a clinical patient care role, so most programs require you to complete an in-person field placement at a dental office in your community. This real-world experience is necessary for programs to earn accreditation through the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CDA), which certifies the quality of dental assistant certificates.
How Long Are Most Dental Assistant Programs?
Most schools design their dental assistant certificates to last one academic year. This includes the clinical placement, as long as you complete your required hours on time.
You need a high school diploma or GED equivalent to apply to a certificate program. Some schools may require college placement test scores — either the ACT or SAT — but most don't ask for specific prerequisite courses.
Most colleges require a physical examination to ensure that you can handle the manual tasks that might be required of a dental assistant. Schools also commonly ask for proof of CPR certification before enrollment, though you may be able to furnish this by the end of your certificate program.
For more information about common application materials, check out our Guide to Applying to Online College or University.
Common Courses in an Online Dental Assistant Program
As with medical assistants, dental assistants perform a mix of clinical and administrative tasks, and their program curricula reflect this. Most programs offer a similar curriculum because they're short and usually aim to meet CDA accreditation standards.
We've listed a few common courses below to give a flavor of what to expect during dental assistant studies.
What Are the Requirements to Be a Dental Assistant?
Requirements vary by state, but the two most common are related to education and licensure.
What Education Do You Need to Be a Dental Assistant?
To meet the dental assistant education requirements, you must earn an accredited certificate in dental assisting. In a few states, the certificate isn't technically a legal requirement to practice. However, it's very unlikely that a licensed dentist will hire you without this education.
Licensing Requirements for Dental Assistants
Most states make you test for a license — also called registration in some states — before allowing you to practice. To qualify, you need to provide your certificate diploma from a CDA-accredited program.
Some states have tiered levels of licensure. For example, dental assistants in some states can handle basic duties without any license at all, but they need advanced licenses to perform coronal polishing or assist with oral surgery. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) maintains a helpful page that details each state's requirements for becoming a licensed or registered dental assistant.
Career Overview for Dental Assistants
The virtue of a certificate program is that it's a fast track to a dental assistant career. Whether you stay in this role for a short time or for many years, it's useful to understand the pay and job opportunities in the field.
What Is the Average Salary for a Dental Assistant?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates the median annual salary for dental assistants as $38,660. Government jobs tend to pay the highest — $46,090 per year.
Interestingly, Minnesota is the top-paying state for dental assistants, despite being near the 50th percentile for cost of living. This means that dental assistants in Minnesota can stretch their salaries further than in other relatively high-paying states such as Massachusetts and Alaska.
What Is the Job Outlook for Dental Assistants?
The job growth rate for dental assistants is 11% in the 2020-2030 period, which is higher than the 8% rate for all U.S. jobs combined. The BLS mentions that advances in dental health care and technology will allow more people to keep their teeth as they age, which may help bolster dental assistant employment rates.
The job growth rate for dental assistants is 11% in the 2020-2030 period, which is higher than the 8% rate for all U.S. jobs combined.