What are the Differences between Dentists and Dental Assistants?

So you are interested in a career in dentistry, but you are wondering what options may be available to you. First, a word of encouragement: dentistry is not only an important aspect of healthcare, which is directly related to overall health, it is also a career with a promising future.

In fact, according to the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job market for dental assistants and dentists alike is projected to continue growing at a rate judged “much faster than the average” compared to other occupations, for the foreseeable future. In fact, the Bureau estimates that dental assistant jobs will grow by 18% for the period from 2014 through 2024. The job outlook for dentists is similar.

How to Become a Dentist 

So, what is a dental assistant, and how does it differ from a dentist? To become a dentist, one must first attend college and obtain a baccalaureate degree, most often in a science-related program which includes various science prerequisites, such as biology and chemistry. Then, during junior year in college, one must take the Dental Admission Test (DAT), which is similar to the MCAT for applicants to medical school.

Finally, one must be accepted into a dentistry program. The latter is more challenging than it sounds because the competition is fierce for a carefully managed number of openings in dental schools around the country. In addition to excellent scores on the DAT, schools consider everything from undergraduate grade point average (GPA) to interviews, to recommendation letters, etc., before making a final decision. 

B.A. or B.S. in hand once accepted to dental school, students must attend full-time for an additional four years. Eventually, a dental student will earn a doctorate-level degree. Various options exist, including Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM), and Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD). But before you can ever fill your first cavity, you will be required to take and pass an exam for licensure in your state. To practice one of the nine dental specialties, further licensure is required. Obtaining one of these licenses involves serving a residency after school, followed by additional licensure examinations. 

Most dentists are small business owners, and, therefore, must call upon a wide range of important skills, including communication skills, leadership, organization, management, physical stamina, and problem-solving ability, among other crucial skills.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Needless to say, it is far simpler, and quicker, to become a dental assistant. Some states require dental assistants to attend an accredited program and pass an exam. Other states have no such requirements, essentially allowing on-the-job training to suffice. Some programs may take as little as one year to complete and may lead to a certificate or diploma. Other, more comprehensive programs, take about two years to complete and result in an associate’s degree. Not all states require dental assistants to be licensed, registered, or certified. But many do. New York is among the top five states with the highest rates of employment of dental assistants.

The American Dental Association notes that the duties of a dental assistant are among the most “comprehensive and varied” in a given dental office or clinic. Among many other tasks, dental assistants may be required to assist during procedures, provide follow-up dental care instructions to patients, teach patients about oral hygiene, help with office management, take and/or develop x-rays, take patient vitals and patient histories, etc.

Tags: Dental Assisting, Career Responsiblities

Kelly Schwab

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