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What does a Dental Assistant do?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A dental assistant’s main job is to prepare a dental office for patient visits, though he or she may also take up small jobs like organizing files, reading and developing x-rays, and preparing dental molds and tooth impressions. Performing these tasks allows the dentist and hygienist to focus more exclusively on patient care. Assistants rarely have formal dental training but do typically become quite knowledgeable about common procedures and practices while on the job. When needed, they can play a more active role in patient care — though the bulk of their work is usually done “behind the scenes.”

Cleaning and Set-Up Duties

One of the most common assistant duties is preparing exam rooms by setting out instruments and ensuring general cleanliness. The assistant will check to be sure that all tools are both present and operational, for instance, and will make sure that supplies like toothpaste, fluoride rinse, and plastic gloves are in stock.

After an exam, the assistant is usually the person responsible for cleaning and re-setting the space. This normally involves sterilizing all equipment used as well as general dusting, sweeping, and sometimes mopping. At the end of the day, assistants typically shut off all appliances and close down the office.

Interaction with Patients

Dental assistants do not usually provide direct patient care, but this does not mean that they can have no outside interactions. A lot depends on the practice, but assistants are often responsible for escorting patients to exam rooms and prepping them — often by providing a protective bib or offering mouthwash for a pre-cleaning rinse.

Patients who need impressions taken of their teeth are also likely to encounter a dental assistant. Preparing and filling molds is generally very simple, but must be done in a particular way to ensure good results. Assistants are usually the ones in charge of both taking the impression and filling in the mold, both of which are then turned over to the dentist in charge for further study.

Technical Work

Most dental assistants are also trained in administering and developing dental x-rays. X-rays are often completed at the beginning of an exam — as the dentist or hygienist works with the patient, the assistant is usually busy in the back developing and processing the film. This way, if there is a problem, new shots can be taken. The finished slides are also ready for expert review while the patient is still in the office, and a diagnosis can be made without any long interruptions in care.

Main Differences Between Hygienists and Assistants

It is sometimes easy to confuse dental assistants and dental hygienists — they often perform some of the same tasks when it comes to set-up and basic patient care, but their training and job responsibilities are quite different. Hygienists are professionals who have received specialized training in dental practice. They are not usually doctors, which means that they cannot make diagnoses or treat major conditions — they usually recognize them, though, and can make recommendations to the dentist in charge. Hygienists are often responsible for conducting patient cleanings, and will also assist during more complex procedures like cavity fillings and root canals.

A dental assistant is not usually qualified to provide direct patient care, and doing so is often a violation of local or national laws. Most countries regulate dental care, often by administering qualifying exams or requiring specialized degrees. While hygienists must usually be certified, assistants can often work with few or no qualifications.

Training and Education Requirements

There are not usually any formal training requirements for dental assistants the way there are for hygienists or dentists, and in most cases hiring decisions are at the discretion of individual practice managers. A high school diploma is usually required, and some form of further education is usually also an asset. Some community colleges and trade schools offer dental assistant or medical assistant programs, most of which culminate in an associate’s degree. This sort of training is often very helpful both in terms of meeting job qualifications and when it comes to finding open positions in the first place — many schools have career offices that will arrange interviews identify options for qualified students.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Practical Adult Insights, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon316519 — On Jan 29, 2013

How long must you go to school for to be a dental assistant?

By notme — On May 23, 2012

I paid $1,000 for a crown and the dental assistant did all the work except for the drilling? When you pay for a dentist, you should have a dentist doing the work.

By anon218384 — On Sep 28, 2011

Believe it when you see mopping floors. It's strange that you get to perform such detailed and technical tasks and at the end of the day you are a janitor! Keep that in mind should you pursue the field. You are the "jill of all trades."

By anon189865 — On Jun 24, 2011

Are dental assistants allowed to start saline I.V.'s?

By anon172654 — On May 04, 2011

Whats a typical work day for a dental assistant?

By anon131775 — On Dec 03, 2010

I would not be surprised to learn that the person who researched and wrote this article has never stepped foot in a dental office.

Here are just a few things dental assistants do: expose and develop radiographs, make temporary crowns and bridges, temporarily seat them, make complete models of patents mouths from start to finish, make night guards, pack retraction cord, make base plates and bite rims. That is just the very basic. Expanded Functions Dental Assistants also take impressions for final crown and bridge, also for partials and dentures, place and carve fillings along with many other things that vary by state. CDA RDA EFDA

By anon80198 — On Apr 26, 2010

how much do they work in a typical day?

By anon40170 — On Aug 06, 2009

what do dental assistants do in a pediatric office?

By anon26245 — On Feb 10, 2009

What is the difference between a dental hygienist and a dental assistant?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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