Guide To Dental Assistant Schools
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Becoming a dental assistant can be the first step in a career path that could lead to many different positions within a dental practice. Whether you are fresh out of high school and embarking on your first job path, returning to the workforce after an extended period of absence, or making a mid-life career change, the most important choice you have to make is what school you will attend for dental assistant training.
Choosing a Dental Assistant SchoolAccreditationThere used to be a time when you could just walk into a dentist’s office, fill out an application, and have a good chance of being hired as an in-office assistant. Dentistry has become one of the most specialized practices in medicine. With over 100 dental specific procedural terms, a job candidate without the proper training often won’t make it to the interview process, and once there won’t stand a chance once the technical questions start coming. Fortunately, there are still some practices in smaller towns where on the job training is the norm if you are a quick learner and have good chairside manner.
If you want to improve your chances of landing a job, there are several community colleges and vocational schools that offer training programs that have been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. With almost 300 programs to choose from, you’ll easily be able to find one in your area. There are also online programs available if you are unable to attend a traditional classroom setting. It is imperative to get your training from an accredited training program in order to move your application from the file for later pile to the interview now pile.
Facility ChoicesThere are two typical choices to decide between when you pick from dental assistant schools. The traditional community college route will take one to two years and will result in either an Associate’s Degree or the ability to take a certification test. You will spend a portion of your time in a standard classroom, another part in a laboratory environment and time in an actual office or clinic doing hands on learning.
A vocational school will have all three elements of the community college experience in one location. The entire process can be completed in as little as 6 months, with night class options that can last 13 to 14 months. In either case, vocational school is a much faster route toward learning the basics needed for certification. Vocational schools do not, however, offer an Associate’s Degree option.
Licensing and CertificationThe certification that most new dental technicians and assistants achieve is the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certificate. This test is administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) and is currently required by thirty-eight states.
Each test consists of three parts, a general chairside assisting portion, a radiation health and safety portion, and an infection control portion. The general chairside exam is 120 multiple choice questions with a one-and-a-half hour time limit. The radiation health and safety portion and infection portion are each 100 questions with one hour and fifteen minute time limits. The test can be taken all at once, or divided among the three sections as long as all three portions are completed in a five year period.
All test takers must have either graduated from a dental assisting or dental hygiene program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. In certain cases a person who has compiled 3,500 hours of dental assisting in a two to four year period can audit the education requirements and take the test.
Degree OverviewA CDA certification is the first step in solidifying a position at a private dental practice. Dental assistant programs will prepare you to handle daily activities including equipment sterilization, oral cavity inspections, processing dental x-rays, taking vitals, completing insurance paper work, filing out patient charts, handling accounts payable, and various other administrative activities
If you opt for the Associate’s Degree in Dental Hygiene, you’ll be one step ahead of all of the candidates that have a simple CDA. The extra time spent learning about removing calculus from teeth, applying fluorides and fissure sealants, and the intensive instruction on delivering local anesthesia and nitrous oxide will make you are far more valuable associate in the office than a candidate without those skills.
Are Online Courses Available?There are online dental assistant programs that will help you prepare to take the certification exam, but they all require hands-on training at an on-site facility for a portion of the instruction. Online courses teach the same curriculum and the level of instruction is comparable but lacks some of the hands on training available in the traditional classroom setting. Online course do, however, offer the added convenience of being able to attend classes when you want. This is a great fit for someone trying to achieve a certification while still holding down full-time employment elsewhere.
Career Paths Opened With a CDA CertificateAfter obtaining a CDA (or an Associate’s Degree) and working as a dental assistant, there are two distinct paths that you can choose to take in order to advance your career – the active functional path and the administrative path.
On the functional path you can choose to pursue further training to become a dental hygienist. You would primarily be doing cleanings but it would come with a bigger paycheck. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental hygienists earned an average of $32.81 per hour whereas CDAs only averaged about half that, at $16.09 per hour. Another route to take is that of a dental laboratory tech. This is a position that fills prescriptions for bridges, crowns and other dental prosthetics. It pays, on average, $16.90 an hour, but doesn’t require as much patient interaction as the other positions.
On the administration path, you have the choice between becoming an office manager, or moving into the education sector. Officer managers generally handle HR services and keeping the office running like a well oiled machine. Many office managers get an Associate’s Degree in a practical dental area and then earn a Bachelor’s in business administration. MBA’s are often common in larger dental practices. If you find yourself leaning toward a career in teaching, working within the Commission on Dental Accreditation is a good place to start. A bachelor’s degree is required to join the team, but with the number of dental assistants that will be needed in the near future, this could be a very lucrative career choice.