How to Become a Registered Dental Assistant - RDA (AMT)
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When people think of healthcare-related jobs, the first words that come to mind are usually “doctor” and “nurse.” Statistics from the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions paint a more realistic picture: more than 60 percent of the U.S. healthcare workforce comprises allied health professions. People in these non-nurse and non-physician allied health roles include positions such as dental assistants, dental hygienists, and nutritionists who serve the wellness needs of their patients in providing diagnostic, evaluative, and preventive medical support in clinical settings.
For those at the beginning of their professional careers or who want to transition to dentistry, dental assisting is a growing entry-level career to help patients develop good oral health habits and boost their confidence in maintaining a bright smile.
When considering the investment of time and money a career in dental assisting requires, it is natural to ask: what does the future looks like for this position? The news is positive for those considering the field of dental assisting. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022) projects an 8 percent growth rate from 2021 to 2031—a rate that is faster than the national average (5 percent).
Dental assistants have numerous growth opportunities and can choose future careers in dental hygiene or specialized aspects of dentistry such as endodontics, orthodontics, oral surgery, and pediatric dentistry. Dental assisting is a rewarding career that is in demand. There are several growth opportunities, and it is a great choice for people desiring to work in a clinical setting in healthcare.
So what are the reasons behind the accelerated job growth in this field? Research from the American Dental Association (ADA) shows a visible correlation between oral health and general health. Medical science has started to include screening for diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disorders in routine dental care.
These diagnostic practices are a diagnostic tool for detecting the leading causes of decreased immune functions. For example, evidence of periodontal disease and other oral infections can indicate more serious health problems that may have otherwise gone undetected. These findings, combined with a large aging population, are the two driving factors that explain the 30,100 dental assistants projected to be added to the workforce by 2031 (BLS May 2022).
Dental assistants perform various clinical and administrative jobs while interacting with patients, dental hygienists, dentists, and administrative professionals. Job responsibilities include scheduling appointments, gathering patient contact information and medical history, and supporting dentists and dental hygienists. Dental assistants prepare and sterilize surgical equipment and communicate post-procedure care instructions to patients. This blend of administrative and clinical responsibility paves a solid foundation for career advancement to positions in other allied health professions in areas like dental hygiene or dental healthcare administration.
There are three main pathways to becoming a dental assistant, and the educational and professional requirements for these positions depend on state regulations. Some states require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited educational program and pass a national exam before working in a dental clinic. Other states replace formal education requirements with on-the-job training, allowing dental assistants to learn skills in a clinical setting. Military training as a dental assistant is also considered valid professional experience.
Certification and training requirements vary by state, and students desiring to work in dental assisting are encouraged to check their state’s educational requirements. Asking a dentist’s office in a particular state or contacting an accredited dental assisting education program at a two- or four-year college are good places to find out this information.
Once dental assistant students complete their training, there are numerous avenues to pursue professional certification. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is affiliated with the ADA and has accredited approximately 235 dental assisting programs in the United States.
After graduating from an accredited program, completing designated on-the-job training approved by a dentist, or proving equivalent professional experience through military service, dental assistants can choose to take the registered dental assistant (RDA) exam given by the American Medical Technologists Association (AMT) and earn professional certification as an RDA.
Read on for a step-by-step career guide to becoming an RDA through AMT and a list of helpful resources for current and future RDAs.
Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA)
Step 1: Earn a high school diploma or GED (four years)
High school students wishing to pursue a career in dental assisting must first earn a high school diploma or a general education diploma (GED). Students should consider taking as many math and science courses as possible to prepare for college-level coursework and may want to explore future career options through national organizations dedicated to helping 14 to 20-year-olds explore future career options, such as HOSA – Future Health Professionals and Learning For Life – Exploring.
Step 2: Enroll in a dental assisting program or equivalent professional path (one to three years)
- 2A: Education Eligibility Route (one year) – Dental assisting degree programs are available through several institutions of higher learning in face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online formats, and programs typically take one year to complete. Accreditation of dental assisting programs is available through CODA, and degrees from regional or nationally accredited educational institutions are also accepted. Check out this list of accredited online dental assisting programs.
- 2B: Military Eligibility Route (16 months) – People who have completed a military dental assisting training program and have at least one year of work experience can apply for the RDA exam. Qualified training programs include dental sciences, clinical procedures, dental radiography, and office skills. If training and work experience was completed four or more years before the RDA exam application date, evidence of at least three years of work experience is also required. Here’s an example of a military dental assistant program with the U.S. Air Force.
- 2C: Work Experience Eligibility Route (three years) – To apply for RDA exam certification through the work experience eligibility route, proof of a minimum of three years or 5,250 hours of dental assistant training under the supervision of a licensed dentist is required. A letter of recommendation from a current or former employer is also necessary to be eligible for the certification exam. Official requirements for the work experience eligibility route are detailed on the AMT website.
Step 3: Apply for the RDA (AMT) (one to three weeks)
After completing a dental assisting program, the next step is to take the registered dental assistant certification exam through the American Medical Technologists Association (AMT). The purpose of this certification exam is to evaluate the professional knowledge and skill-based competence of entry-level practitioners in the field of dental assisting.
Students typically wait one to three weeks to receive confirmation that their application has been accepted to register to take the exam. Please see the AMT Candidate Handbook for more details on what to expect when applying for the RDA.
Step 4: Prepare for RDA (AMT) certification exam (timeline varies)
Although the RDA test will likely cover content learned through dental assisting education programs or professional experiences, it is essential to prepare for any exam to be familiar with the test format, content, and time requirements. Free resources for the RDA exam are available and divided into exam content details and reference materials. Materials for students preparing to take the RDA exam are also featured in the form of successful student profiles and test-taking strategies.
Step 5: Register and pass the RDA (AMT) certification exam (one day)
After applying to take the RDA exam, approved students will receive an email confirming if their application to take the exam has been approved. Students who receive a confirmation should visit the ‘My Homepage’ part of the AMT website to download and print an Authorization to Test letter. Students can use this letter to register for the RDA test at a Pearson Vue test center. A complete checklist of tasks to do in applying for the RDA exam can be found on the AMT website.
Step 6: Maintain RDA certification (one to three years)
Examinees who pass the RDA exam are invited to become active certified members of the AMT. Membership in this organization can be renewed annually for $75, and members must comply with the certification continuation program every three years. Belonging to this professional organization ensures future employers that individuals abide by the AMT standards of practice. AMT membership benefits run the gamut of continuing education, career services, and leadership opportunities.
Helpful Resources for RDAs
Dental assistants require much more than specialized tools, degrees, and professional experience. Continuing education is essential for maintaining certification and growing as a professional. Best practices, ethical standards, and governmental regulations constantly evolve, and dedicated professionals consistently further their skills and competencies.
Professional societies and scholarly journals provide a platform for dental assistants to network, learn, and share their experiences. To be informed on the latest in dental assisting practices, here’s a list of resources below.
- American Medical Technologists Association (AMT)
- American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation
- Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions