Careers in dental medicine include more than just dentists and orthodontists. Both dentists and orthodontists rely on assistant-level practitioners to help them perform exams and procedures. Without people in these roles, they would not be able to treat as many patients because of the dozens of additional tasks involved in each interaction with a patient.
Dental and orthodontic assistants provide essential support. While the positions share similar training and job responsibilities, the role of an orthodontic assistant is more specialized. Many orthodontic assistants begin their careers as dental assistants, with some states, including Maryland, requiring this experience to pursue an orthodontic assistant certificate. If you are considering one of these careers, it is important to understand the core job functions and explore how to become licensed to work in your preferred specialty.
What is a Dental Assistant?
A dental assistant’s primary role is to make checkups and procedures faster and easier for the dentist to perform. This role requires organization and the ability to interpret instructions quickly and communicate effectively with the dentist and the patients. This allows the dentist to work uninterrupted to focus entirely on the exam or procedure he is performing.
Routine responsibilities of dental assistants typically include:
- Welcoming patients in a friendly manner and explaining the purpose of their visit and the processes involved in any procedures that are taking place.
- Preparing patients for the dentist’s arrival.
- Answering any questions patients have or passing their questions on to the dentist.
- Cleaning and sterilizing dental tools and work areas in exam rooms.
- Passing instruments to the dentist during examinations and procedures.
- Keeping patients’ mouths dry during procedures (via a suction hose).
- Helping patients relax and feel comfortable during procedures.
- Assisting in tasks related to oral surgery, such as applying topical anesthetics, suturing gums, and removing stitches.
- Providing instructions for at-home care following procedures.
Dental assistant positions are usually in high demand, so pursuing this path will likely result in employment opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 11 percent by 2028, which is faster than the average for all occupations. In 2019, the nationwide average salary for a dental assistant was about $41,000.
How to Become a Dental Assistant
The steps needed to become a dental assistant vary significantly by state. Most states require some level of education or technical training through an accredited program, and 39 states require that you pass a licensing exam.
Maryland, however, allows any person with a high school diploma or equivalency to begin work without any specialized education or training. The employee is limited to basic responsibilities that do not involve direct interaction with treating a patient (often office and clerical work) and will operate under direct supervision. Certification is necessary to advance to more comprehensive dental assistant duties.
To perform expanded functions, you will need to register as a Dental Assistant Qualified in General Duties, a licensure through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). This requires completing a 35-hour board-approved course. Candidates may then choose to pass DANB’s Maryland General Dental Assisting Expanded Functions Exam or pass the DANB Certified Dental Assistant Exam and apply for certification with the Maryland State Board of Dental Examiners.
To operate digital X-ray equipment, dental assistants also must become certified as dental radiation technologists. This requires them to complete 24 hours of coursework, pass the National Radiation Health and Safety Exam, and apply for state certification.
Dental Assistant vs. Hygienist
It is important to note that a dental assistant is not a hygienist, which is a more advanced credential that allows the practitioner to have hands-on interactions with patients that the dentist does not directly observe. Dental hygienists are responsible for cleaning teeth by removing plaque, tartar, and stains from patients’ teeth and applying sealant and fluoride treatments. They also complete oral health assessments, report their findings to dentists, and educate patients on caring properly for their teeth.
Becoming a dental hygienist requires completion of an associate’s degree program that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, part of the American Dental Association. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a dental hygienist’s national average annual salary is around $73,000.
What is an Orthodontic Assistant?
An orthodontic assistant works with an orthodontist to straighten people’s teeth and correct their jaw alignment or bite. They may help install and maintain devices in a patient’s mouth such as braces, retainers, brackets, and jaw expanders. It is essential for orthodontic assistants to have finger dexterity, good hand-to-eye coordination, attention to detail, and the ability to work independently.
Responsibilities of orthodontic assistants typically include:
- Maintaining accurate records of patients’ oral health histories and treatment progress.
- Taking X-rays and impressions of patients’ bites.
- Creating molds from impressions in a laboratory setting.
- Tying in wires during the application of braces.
- Performing braces adjustments and changing out wires and brackets.
- Replacing elastic bands and other appliances.
- Educating patients on proper oral hygiene practices specific to wearing braces.
While dental assistants primarily work with dentists, orthodontic assistants spend more time individually with patients. Most of their work takes place before and after the patient sees the orthodontist. The salaries of orthodontic assistants are comparable to those of qualified dental assistants, so which path is best for you depends on your interests and preferred work environment.
The job outlook is excellent for dental assistants and hygienists, but it is even better for orthodontic assistants. The field of orthodontics is growing at more than double the rate of all occupations in all industries. This increase leads to more job openings as well as long-term job security.
How to become an Orthodontic Assistant
Maryland requires that candidates for orthodontic assistant certification first obtain the Dental Assistant Qualified in General Duties licensure. Beyond the requirements for qualified dental assistants, candidates must complete an additional 35 hours of DANB-approved coursework related to orthodontic assisting. This includes studying dental terminology, anatomy, medical ethics, orthodontic devices, radiology, and records management.
Candidates can then choose between passing the Maryland Orthodontic Assisting Expanded Functions Exam administered by DANBa dental hygienists passing the national DANB Certified Orthodontic Assistant Exam, and applying to the Maryland State Board of Dental Examiners for certification.
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