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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.
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.