Dental Assistant vs. Medical Assistant - A Side-by-Side Comparison

The first person most patients engage with in a medical or dental clinic is rarely the dentist or physician. Most patients are called back to the exam room by an assistant, be it medical or dental. Medical and dental assistants are critical to patient care and a smooth running clinic. These fast-growing careers are currently in high demand. Education and licensing vary by state but the process isn’t as lengthy or demanding as in other medical jobs. While the positions are similar, there are some distinct differences.

Dental assistants provide integral support in dental offices, as they are depended on to perform a wide variety of tasks. They coordinate much of the logistics of a patient’s visit including taking x-rays, preparing exam rooms, taking dental impressions, assisting during procedures, providing oral hygiene education, assisting with follow up care, and sterilizing equipment. Many dental assistants also perform clerical work in dental offices including scheduling appointments, answering phones, and assisting with billing. Jobs for dental assistants can be in private clinics, public health offices, hospitals, and group practices.

Medical assistants are responsible for both clinical and administrative tasks in physician’s clinics, hospitals, outpatient clinics, public health offices, and group practices. They are often the intermediary between patients and physicians. Depending on the office, and the medical assistant’s background and education, the roles an assistant fills may vary, but it is always patient-centric. Direct patient care performed by medical assistants may include escorting the patient to the exam room, taking vital signs, administering medication per the doctor’s orders, and assisting with procedures. Administrative and clerical work can include coordinating services with other care providers, maintaining electronic health records, scheduling appointments, coding visits, and assisting with billing.

In some states, both medical and dental assistants can complete on-the-job-training in lieu of formal education. However, most employers seek assistants with education and certification. Dental assistant requirements vary by state, and it is recommended to check local requirements. Some states only require a one- to two-year vocational program accredited through the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Other states have more stringent rules and require that dental assistants also obtain certification from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

There are several certification and education paths for medical assistants. Prospective medical assistants can attend a vocational school’s one- to two-year program and receive certification or diploma. They can also attend a community or junior college and complete an associate’s degree while obtaining the training necessary to enter the field. There are four distinct paths one can take to complete the requirements for this position: Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) through American Medical Technologists (AMA) or American Registry of Medical Assistants (ARMA), and National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) through the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT). Which program a student should choose depends largely on the state requirements and proximity of the course or online availability.

Both careers have similar roles and responsibilities in their respective clinical arenas. Medical or dental assistants are required to abide by strict confidentiality laws and have specialized knowledge in the medical or dental fields. Assistants in either field will need to possess acute attention to detail, a good bedside manner, and strong interpersonal skills. Adaptability and the ability to quickly transition from one task to another are also essential skills to fulfilling either role successfully.

Continue reading for more information about medical and dental assistant careers as well as resources for further learning.

Side-by-Side Comparison of Dental Assistant & Medical Assistant Careers

Dental Assistant Medical Assistant
Definition

Dental assistants work under the supervision of a dentist providing patient care as well as clerical tasks.

Medical assistants perform a variety of duties that assist physicians and other health professionals in a clinical setting.

Typical Responsibilities
  • Greet patients
  • Take and develop x-rays
  • Collect patient history
  • Take vital signs
  • Take dental impressions
  • Assist the dentist or hygienist during procedures
  • Prepare rooms for procedures
  • Schedule appointments
  • Answer the phone
  • Assist with insurance billing
  • Sterilize equipment
  • Check patients in and out
  • Coordinate care with other healthcare providers
  • Assist with procedures and exams
  • Maintain patient records
  • Administer medications and injections per doctor’s orders
  • Take vital signs and patient history
  • Assist with billing and scheduling
  • Take patient vital signs
  • Collect lab samples
Education

One- or two-year dental assisting program, accredited through the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Some states allow two years of on-the-job training in lieu of a formal program.

Nine- to twelve-month program, accredited through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). On-the-job training may be possible in some states.

Work Environments
  • Private dental clinics
  • Public health clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Group practices
  • Physician’s offices
  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Public health clinics
Median Salary

$38,660 per year or $18.59 per hour (BLS, 2019)

$33,610 per year or $16.16 per hour (BLS, 2019)

Licensing and Certification

Licensing requirements vary by state. Many states require earning a nationally recognized certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Current CPR certification is required for employment in most clinics.

Currently, there are four main paths for medical assistant certification: Several states have their own credentialing as well. Be sure to check local requirements. Current CPR certification is required for employment in most clinics.
Resources
The Bottom Line

Dental assistants perform patient care services alongside clerical duties in a variety of dental clinical settings while under the supervision of a dentist. They greet patients, take and develop x-rays, collect patient history, take vital signs, assist the dentist or hygienist during procedures, schedule appointments, assist with insurance billing, and sterilize equipment. Licensing and education requirements vary by state, but earning a nationally recognized certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) can improve employability.

Medical assistants are important team members in clinics, hospitals, and physician’s offices. They are responsible for many of the support duties performed in medical offices such as escorting the patient to the exam room, taking vital signs, administering medication per the doctor’s orders, coordinating services with other care providers, maintaining electronic health records, scheduling appointments, and assisting with billing. There are numerous education and licensing paths to choose from and requirements vary by state.