Dental Assistant Training Schools

Choosing a Dental Assistant Training Program 

dental assistant assisting oral surgeonChoosing the right dental assistant school is an important first step toward beginning your new career in dentistry.  But before you can make your selection, you must evaluate and compare your school options.  There is much more to doing your due diligence than choosing the program with the lowest tuition or enrolling in the school that is closest to your home.  There are other important factors to consider as well, such as the school’s reputation and accreditation.  Your first step is to decide which of the specialties you are most interested in obtaining training for, which may depend on the amount of time that you have to invest.  The most common dental assistant program usually takes about 1 year to complete for a certificate or diploma.  On the other hand, dental hygienists generally earn an Associate Degree, which can take anywhere from 2 to 3 years to complete.  Obviously with the longer training of a hygienist comes more expense.  We will talk about all of these considerations and additional questions that you should be asking the schools you are evaluating later in this article.  But first, let’s look at the roles of both dental hygienists and assistants and the training options available.

The Role of a Dental Assistant

Dental assistants are an integral part of any dental practice and can perform a myriad of functions.  Their main overall job description is to provide support to the dentists and the administrative staff.  In other words, help keep the practice running efficiently.  Some dental assistants choose to specialize and receive certification in a particular area, such as orthodontics.  However most assistants perform any task that they are called upon to complete, such as:

  • Scheduling and confirming appointments
  • Preparing patients for teeth cleanings and treatments
  • Sterilizing and preparing instruments for dentists
  • Clearing patients’ mouths with suction equipment
  • Providing instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Preparing X-ray machines and processing X-rays
  • Ordering dental and office supplies

Licensing and certification requirements for dental assistants vary by state, so check with the {state} dental board for your state’s regulations.  Assistants working with X-ray machines most likely will need to be certified and licensed.  Many dental assistants who are either required or choose to become certified take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

The Role of a Dental Hygienist

When comparing the role of a dental hygienist to that of an assistant, the biggest difference is probably that the hygienist works more independently.  As previously discussed, the dental assistant works with and in support of the dentist and the practice.  Hygienists, while also supporting the practice, work with the patients more on a one-to-one basis.  They are often the first person a patient sees when called from the waiting room.  They examine each patient’s teeth and gums and report their findings to the dentists.  They also may perform basic procedures as well.  Based on state law, a hygienist’s duties may include:

  • Removing plaque, tartar and stains
  • Applying fluoride treatments
  • Polishing teeth and applying sealants
  • Teaching patient’s about oral care
  • Taking X-rays and developing film
  • Applying fillings and removing sutures

In order to be licensed in almost all states, dental hygienists must graduate from a Commission on Dental Accreditation (CDA) accredited dental hygiene program.  They must also pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination in addition to passing any state licensure examinations.  Once they have completed these requirements they are considered fully licensed and may add the “RDH” designation to their names, signifying Registered Dental Hygienist.

Dental Assistant and Hygienist Training Options

dental assistant and dentistDental assistant programs are available at community colleges as well as vocational or technical schools.  The most common credential earned is the certificate, which generally takes about a year to complete.  There are fewer Associate Degree programs available, and they offer a more comprehensive education providing general subjects in addition to the dental assisting classes. Because of the additional responsibility compared to an assistant, dental hygienists working in dental practices are usually required to hold an Associate Degree in dental hygiene.  These programs can take anywhere from 2 to as long as 3 years to complete and must be accredited by the CDA in almost every state.  They are also offered in community colleges and technical schools.  Whether you are pursuing training as a dental assistant or hygienist, there will be a clinical aspect to the training as well.  Some programs also sponsor internship programs with local dentists or dental practices.

Online Dental Assistant Programs

attending dental assistant school onlineEnrolling in an online dental assistant or hygienist program may be a good option for receiving your education.  Just keep in mind that the program will not be 100% online, since there will be a clinical portion to your training.  But the balance of your classes will be available via your computer in the comfort of your home or elsewhere on your laptop or tablet.  For those continuing to work while attending school, online dental programs make education much more accessible.  Some may even offer lower tuition costs than their on-campus counterparts.  And additional expenses such as for commuting, books and school supplies may be reduced as well.  The clinical training can often be completed at an area dental practice or in an on campus lab.  With both the clinical and online training, everything needed to obtain the proper education is provided.  If you have the discipline for this mode of learning, you may find that attending an online dental school is the right choice for you.

Questions to Ask Dental Assistant Schools

dental surgeryOnce you have decided on the dental specialty and type of credential you would like to earn, you can begin the process of comparing schools and programs.  As we discussed at the start of this article, many students begin by looking at such qualifiers as the location and cost of the schools.  Perhaps they search for some online options as well.  Although these may be important initial considerations, there are several questions that you should ask of the schools you are comparing in order to make an informed decision.  Toward that end, we have provided a list of questions to help you with your evaluation and ultimate selection of the right dental hygienist school for you.

Is the Dental School Accredited?  There are several good reasons why you should only enroll in an accredited dental assistant program.  If you are going to become certified or licensed, then accreditation is a requirement in almost all states.  In order to take the Certified Dental Assistant exam, your dental program must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CDA).  Accreditation also helps ensure that the training you receive is comprehensive and of the highest quality.  Employers often prefer or require that new hires are graduates of accredited schools.  And finally, if you are applying for a student loan or financial aid, often it is not available for non-accredited programs.

Is The Right Dental Program Offered?  You can choose to train to become a dental assistant or a dental hygienist, just make sure that the school you select offers the program that’s right for you.  For the assistant program, the options are to enroll in a certificate program or earn an Associate Degree.  In order to work as a hygienist, most dental practices require an Associate Degree in dental hygiene.  More advanced degrees, although not common, are available.  And just because a school has a good reputation and accreditation does not mean all of its programs do as well.  For example, an accredited school may have a strong accredited dental assistant program, but may have a weaker or non-accredited hygienist program.  So if you are only interested in a dental hygiene degree, obviously it would not be the right school for you.

Is Adequate Clinical Training Provided?  Practical or clinical training is an important part of any dental training program.   This is true for the online school options as well.  Dental schools have relationships with area dental practices and clinics that provide clinical training for their students.  It’s not only important that the program you enroll in offers adequate clinical hours but also provides them in the type of practice that you ultimately would like to work in.  For example, if you are interested in a career in pediatric dentistry, make sure that the school you enroll in offers clinical rotation in an area dental practice that specializes in dental care for children.

Is There an Internship Program?  Ask if the dental colleges you are looking at have an internship program.  Internships are probably the best way to get hands-on, clinical experience in a real dental practice.  They help students make the transition from the theoretical to the practical.  They also help students establish working relationships in the professional dental community.  And they look good on resumes as well.      

Is Job Placement Assistance Provided?  Many graduating students of dental assistant programs need help landing their first job.  Find out if the schools you are considering have a job placement program, and what their job placement rates are.  Schools with high job placement rates are likely to have good reputations within the dental community as well as broad networks of contacts where they can place their students for employment or internships.

Are the Classes Small?  Find out from the schools you are evaluating how large on average their classes are.  The smaller classes tend to provide a more intimate atmosphere for learning where students have greater access to the instructors.  On the other hand, larger classes tend to be impersonal and offer little one-on-one instruction.  If practical, find out if you can sit in on a couple of classes at the school that you are most interested in so that you can experience the level of interaction between teachers and students before enrolling.

What is the Total Cost of the Program?  Dental assistant certificate and degree programs can vary in cost based on the length of the program and the amount of clinical training.  Other factors, such as the reputations of the schools and whether they are public or private also come into play.  But in addition to the tuition are other significant costs.  Added expenses, including those for commuting, textbooks and other school materials and supplies can add up.  So when comparing the cost of schools, remember to include all costs associated with your education.  Most schools have financial aid departments, so make sure to inquire as to what is available in loans, grants and scholarships in your area.

Are the Classes Accessible?  Before enrolling in your dental school of choice, you will need to make sure that the assistant program offers classes that fit your schedule.  This is particularly true if you continue working while getting your education and need to attend classes near your home in the evenings or on weekends.  And even if you enroll in an online school, you will still need to schedule your clinical training classes.  Also, while making your inquiries, ask what the make-up policy is if you should have to miss any classes due to work, illness or family emergencies.

Pick the Right Dental Assistant College

Picking the right dental assistant course is important if you want to take the CDA examination or get licensed if required in your state.  As you now know there are several options available to obtain your education.  You can pursue a certificate or a degree program, and you can attend classes online or on-campus.  Whichever credential or mode of training you elect to pursue, by asking the questions presented in this article you will be better prepared to make the right selection.  And by doing so, you will be ready to start your journey to become a dental assistant.