A dental assistant is generally an entry-level employee who works closely with a professional dentist. A dental assistant's duties may include organizing appointments, sterilizing and arranging instruments, escorting patients, taking X-Rays and performing routine clerical work. Many high school vocational programs offer training to become a dental assistant, although formal education is not always a requirement. Some dentists will train a dental assistant on the job.
The responsibilities of a dental assistant can vary from office to office. Many states require additional certification and training before a dental assistant can operate an x-ray machine, for example. In general, a dental assistant is not authorized to perform any surgical procedures on a patient. In most cases, an effective dental assistant acts as an extra pair of hands for the dentist during a procedure, suctioning excess saliva or providing instruments perhaps. Cleanings are often handled by trained dental hygienists, who often attend college-level vocational courses.
A dental assistant may also spend time comforting patients, especially young children. This may require exceptional human relationship skills and the ability to work under stressful conditions. A successful dental assistant must also be very professional when scheduling appointments and resolving patients' concerns and questions.
The starting pay for a dental assistant is generally low for a job in the medical field. An entry-level dental assistant without x-ray certification may only earn $8 to $12 an hour, based on the size and location of the dentistry center. Advancement for a dental assistant may be limited to office manager or a position of seniority among co-workers. For any significant chance of career advancement, a dental assistant may consider training as a dental hygienist or entering dental school.
Like many other entry to mid-level jobs in the medical field, the position of dental assistant is in great demand. Turnover rates can be high, as workers seek out more responsible positions elsewhere. Becoming a dental assistant straight out of a high school vocational program is a distinct possibility. Some private educational institutions and community colleges also offer training for the dental assisting field.