How to Become a DANB-Certified Dental Assistant
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Certified dental assistants are a critical component of an efficient dentist’s office. Without these knowledgeable professionals, dentists would not be able to do their essential work. Certified dental assistants (CDAs) offer chairside support on industry equipment and surgical and procedural assistance with fillings, extractions, and crowns. Responsibilities also include patient care, laboratory testing, and administrative duties such as scheduling and bill processing. In the United States, there is only one way to earn a dental assisting certification: through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).
Thirty-nine states require DANB certifications and exams by law, including the District of Columbia and federal government organizations such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Air Force.
The most commonly obtained certification through the DANB is that of the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA). Applicants must pass three individual exams to receive a CDA certification through the DANB, which includes the General Chairside Assisting (GC) exam, the Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) exam, and the Infection Control (ICE) exam. The DANB offers three dental assistant certifications:
- National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
- Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
- Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA) certification
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the field will add 36,900 jobs between 2020 and 2030. The most common level of education of CDAs is postsecondary nondegree, typically an associate’s degree. It should be noted that those who go on to become CDAs are professionals who often hold a two-year dental hygienist degree at a minimum.
Keep reading to learn more about how you can become a certified dental assistant, including information about education, career pathways, industry certifications, and specialization. Please note that no two states have precisely the same requirements for licensure or certification, and only 39 require certification through the DANB. This piece covers the three eligibility pathways for dental assistant certification outlined by DANB, going into detail about further requirements below. CODA, the Commission on Dental Accreditation, oversees accreditation, curriculum, and compliance for educational programs in the United States.
Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a DANB-Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)
Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years).
Before graduating from high school, there are many ways that students can prepare for a career as a DANB-certified dental assistant. Coursework should focus on biology, anatomy, and biology, which will help prepare for specialized medical work. The DANB accepts high school dental assisting programs for its National Entry Level Dental Assistant certification, or NELDA, so long as the program includes at least a single semester of dental assisting coursework or curriculum.
Step 2a: Graduate from a dental assisting program (nine months to two years).
The most common places to obtain dental assisting credentials are community colleges and training or vocational schools. Depending on whether a student is pursuing a certificate, diploma, or associate degree program, it can take one to two years. A vital element of a cutting-edge CDA program is a hands-on component that provides ample opportunities to test skills.
Students interested in pursuing these sorts of careers might be overwhelmed by the various paths available to them. The standard diploma and certificate programs offer practical educational options for people who might not be interested in earning a more advanced degree. Another benefit of this is that CDAs can enter the workforce more quickly because the educational period is shorter. Some of the most common courses include office administration, dental materials, communications, radiography, anatomy, biology, physiology, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and virology.
For certificate programs, coursework is usually completed within 12 months, while an associate’s degree in dental assisting takes two years. Schools like the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis School of Dentistry and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Dentistry maintain top-rated dental assistants and hygienist programs.
The Indiana University’s School of Dentistry offers a CODA-accredited on-campus certificate in dental assisting that requires the successful completion of 30 credits. Students in this program must complete at least 300 clinical hours to earn the certificate.
This full-time two-semester program consists of 14 required courses: oral histology and embryology; oral pathology, physiology, anatomy; dental therapeutics and medical emergencies; microbiology and asepsis technique; dental materials; and preventive dentistry and nutrition; and practice management, ethics, and jurisprudence.
- Location: Indianapolis, Indiana
- Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission and a member of the North Central Association (NCA); Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
- Expected Time to Completion: two-semesters
- Estimated Tuition: Resident ($8,794.78); non-resident ($30,476.90)
The dental assisting program (DAP) offered by the University of Alabama’s Birmingham School of Dentistry provides students with the educational background and unique clinical experiences essential to becoming proficient in delivering dental healthcare.
This year-long program includes demonstrations, rotations, and lectures within the school and private dental offices where students will engage in broad-based clinical experiences, from orthodontics to pediatric dentistry and more. Assisting with several patient procedures and gaining valuable experience and knowledge through robust interactions with the dental staff, faculty, residents, and students, graduates of this program will receive a certificate of completion at the end of the program.
As part of the program, students will delve into topics such as introduction to dental assisting; dental health education; pre-clinical procedures; basic sciences for dental assisting; anatomy and physiology for dental assisting; dental materials; applied psychology in dentistry; dental office procedures; and dental radiology.
- Location: Birmingham, Alabama
- Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- Expected Time to Completion: 12 months
- Estimated Tuition: Resident ($2,133 per term); non-resident ($4,769 per term)
San Antonio College offers a dental assisting level I certificate and an AAS degree program in dental assisting providing students with the essential skills and knowledge necessary for becoming an essential part of the dental healthcare team and meeting the requirements of the national examining entity.
The certificate program consists of 33 credits, while the AAS degree program requires the completion of 60 credits. Sample some of the courses in the curriculum: dental materials; dental radiology; dental science; dental assisting applications; chairside assisting; dental laboratory procedures; preventive dentistry; dental radiology in the clinic; and dental office management, among others.
- Location: San Antonio, Texas
- Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC); Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
- Expected Time to Completion: AAS (five semesters); certificate (three semesters)
- Estimated Tuition: In-district ($99 per credit); out-of-district ($215 per credit); non-resident ($466 per credit)
Many career schools, technical and vocational colleges, and community colleges have recently begun offering distance-based and online dental assisting degrees. While the bulk of the work is in modules and browser-based courses, there are always practicums at the end of the program to test the technical skills necessary for the profession.
An institution such as Penn Foster Career School has a fast-track online program that graduates certain students in as little as four months. Preparing students for the NELDA exam (National Entry Level Dental Assistant) from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), the program provides students with the foundational knowledge and skills needed for supporting dental hygienists and dentists in a dental office.
Comprising 10 courses, students in this program will explore topics such as introduction to dental assistant; dental terminology, anatomy, and charting; preventive dentistry and ethics; infection control and dental emergencies; dental medications and materials; dental specialties; and professional opportunities and management software.
- Location: Scranton, Pennsylvania
- Accreditation: Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
- Expected Time to Completion: Fast track (4 months); Average time (7 months)
- Estimated Tuition: $59 per month
Hudson Valley Community College offers an online dental assisting certificate and an associate in applied science program in dental assisting. The college also offers an alternative dental assisting program (ADAP) for those who are currently working in the field and have more than 3,500 hours of work experience and CPR certification.
The online dental assisting certificate program comprises 27 credits including courses such as dental anatomy and embryology; dental assisting radiology; dental materials for dental assistants; oral hygiene education and nutrition; and dental office procedures, among others.
The AAS degree program comprises 70 credits including coursework in microbiology; tooth morphology and occlusion; head and neck anatomy; pathology; periodontology; dental materials; and pharmacology.
- Location: Troy, New York
- Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE); Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
- Expected Time to Completion: AAS (five terms); certificate (two terms)
- Estimated Tuition: New York State resident ($200 per credit); New York State non-resident and out-of-state resident ($400 per credit)
The dental assisting program offered by the University of Houston-Downtown prepares students for entry-level positions in the dental assisting field. The program’s purpose is to familiarize graduates with all areas of clinical and administrative dental assisting and the responsibilities required for functioning as an assistant in a dental practice. This program can be completed on-campus or online. Students taking the on-campus route will be eligible to participate in a 40-hour clinical externship.
Some of the topics students include dental anatomy and physiology; dental radiology; the foundation of clinical dentistry; patient information and assessment; oral health and prevention of dental disease; parts of the jaw and areas of the mouth; dental handpieces and accessories; and dental equipment, accessories & treatment room.
- Location: Houston, Texas
- Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- Expected Time to Completion: 12 to 24 months
- Estimated Tuition: $1,199
Step 2b: Complete a minimum of 3,500 hours of DANB-approved work experience (two to four years).
This pathway is for those individuals who have experience in the field but lack the traditional diploma, degree, or certificate of a formal dental assistant education. A registered, licensed dentist must confirm that you have accrued 3,500 hours of dental assistant work in a facility or state that might not expressly require CDAs to be officially licensed. If accepted, the 3,500 hours count as an entire course of study in hands-on CDA training.
Step 2c: Complete an externship (timeline varies, optional).
An excellent means of gaining further dental training is to sign up for an externship. These positions often run concurrently with education or post-certification training and reskilling programs and give dental assistants a way to gain experience and make their job applications stand out.
Many academic programs host externships as an ancillary component of a CDA curriculum. This helps students sharpen their CDA skills and gain valuable chairside experience in oral anatomy, dental pathology, oral hygiene, radiology, dental pharmacology, and oral hygiene.
Step 3: Earn certification in CPR from a DANB-certified provider (one to three months).
While this certification might seem obvious, all dental professionals must be trained in CPR, basic first aid, services, or advanced cardiac life support. The DANB accepts CPR, BLS, and ACLS credentials from any entities below provided that the course is partially based on CPR and a hands-on exam.
These include the American Environmental Health and Safety, American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, the American Safety and Health Institute, the Canadian Red Cross, the Emergency Care and Safety Institute, Emergency First Response, Emergency Medical Training Associates, the Emergency University, EMS Safety Services, Medic First Aid, the Military Training Network, the National Safety Council, and ProCPR.
Step 4: Apply for the DANB CDA exam (timelines vary).
The cost of DANB’s CDA exam is $425. This breakdown of exam eligibility requirements describes varied pathways and how to go about applying for the certifications. Aspiring dental assistants can use the CDA Application Packet to determine whether they would like to apply digitally or via mail, or fax.
The DALE Foundation, the only official affiliate organization of the DANB, hosts study aids, review courses, and practice exams. These include a CDA exam outline, the CDA application packet, and a list of relevant areas to study. DALE boasts extensive study aids for all three CDA exams, including reviews and practice tests for the RHS, ICE, and GC areas of expertise. The DANB RHS Review, along with the DANB ICE Review and parts one and two of the DANB GC Review are offered free of charge.
Step 5: Pass the DANB CDA exam (six to eight weeks).
Certification and licensure requirements for the CDA exam can differ from state to state, but the DANB has curricular authority in all 50 states. In the 39 of these states where certification is necessary, the three exams that constitute the DANB certification total 320 questions.
Pearson Inc.’s VUE testing centers host the tests. As mentioned above, there are three individual exams required to receive a CDA certification through the DANB, which include the General Chairside Assisting (GC) exam, the Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) exam, and the Infection Control (ICE) exam. The test has a possible 900 points; a passing score is 400.
Again, the DANB offers various dental assistant certifications. These include the National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) certification, the Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA) certification, and the Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA) certification. Additionally, a general CDA certification or a certified orthodontic assistant (COA) certification is also available.
These certifications specialize in periodontics, endodontics, prosthodontics, pediatric dentistry, dentofacial orthodontics, and maxillofacial surgery. Digital imaging techniques, advanced radiography, diet and nutrition for oral health, and dental care for infants are just a few of the other areas one might be interested in studying.
CDAs who have obtained certification through the DANB must stay up to date on industry standards and re-certify their credentials each year through continuing dental education courses.
Step 6: Get an entry-level CDA position (timeline varies).
As demand for dental assistants is high, graduates should find no shortage of available jobs in any of the positions or specializations listed above. Between 2020 and 2030, the number of dental assistant positions is expected to grow by 11 percent, faster than the national average for all occupations at 8 percent (BLS May 2021). By 2030, the BLS projects that almost 36,900 new CDA positions will be added to the American market.
Dentistry-centric job boards such as the one operated by the American Dental Assistants Association (requires membership), DentalGrind.com (requires membership), or iHireDental.com host job listings for dental professionals of all walks and degree levels.
Helpful Resources for DANB-Certified Dental Assistants
Many valuable and informative resources are available for prospective dental assisting students, from non-profits to representative organizations to job boards. Below are some of the most salient and valuable resources for those wishing to pursue a career pathway via DANB-certified dental assistants.
- American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA)
- Dale Foundation
- Dale Foundation Courses and Study Aids
- Dental Accrediting National Board (DANB)
- Exams and Certification Information (DANB)
- List of CODA-Accredited Dental Assisting Programs (DANB)
- National Dental Assistant Association (NDAA)
- Salary and Benefits Breakdown (DANB)