National Dental Assistants Week 2021: Expert Interview

This year’s Dental Assistants Recognition Week (DARW) takes place from March 7 to 13, 2021. Hosted by the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), it’s a time to honor the versatile talent of the dental assistant, and recognize the vital role dental assistants play within the dental healthcare delivery team. This theme for this year’s Dental Assistants Recognition Week is: Our Heart Goes Into Every Smile.

Dental assistants make dental healthcare more efficient, utilizing strong interpersonal and technical skills. As part of the broader dental team, they can perform a wide range of tasks: preparing patients for treatment; educating patients on oral hygiene; taking dental impressions; sterilizing dental instruments; and assisting dentists with certain procedures. Their work can span the administrative, diagnostic, operative, and preventive side of dental healthcare.

It can be too easy, sometimes, to look past the work of a dental assistant. But they represent the largest segment of the dental workforce. This is a fast-growing, patient-facing role that’s much more complex than it seems. To learn more about today’s dental assistants, and the key issues in their profession, read on.

The Value of Dental Assistants

In 2016, the Dental Advancement through Learning and Education (DALE) Foundation commissioned a national survey of nearly 3,000 dentists, dental hygienists, dental office managers, and dental assistants, to find the value and impact of dental assistants. The results were overwhelming: 99 percent of respondents said dental assistants contributed to the productivity of their dental practice; 97 percent said dental assistants helped the dentist to move onto the next patient more quickly; and 98 percent said dental assistants contributed to overall synergy and made other team members more effective, too.

Dental assistants provide more than efficiency; they boost a dental practice’s profitability, too: 97 percent of respondents said dental assistants contribute to patient retention, and 91 percent said dental assistants increase the likelihood that patients will accept a dentist-recommended treatment plan. The survey’s findings also showed that dental assistants were instrumental in the overall safety of a dental practice, and contributed to key purchasing decisions.

The vast majority of dentists and dental office managers reported that dental assistants should be empowered to do everything state regulations allow them to do. They also encouraged continuing education and cross-training for dental assistants: the more educated the dental assistant, the better performing the dental practice. Numbering over 350,000, dental assistants are already the largest segment of the dental healthcare workforce, and they’re increasingly skilled, too.

Certifications for Dental Assistants

The formal process of becoming a dental assistant isn’t particularly long: the majority of academic dental assisting programs, accredited through the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), take less than a year to complete. But more and more dental assistants are pursuing additional certifications that demonstrate both their competency and their commitment to the profession.

In certain states, certification also qualifies a dental assistant to perform more complex duties. It pays to be certified: dental assistants who earn professional certification earn more than their non-certified colleagues.

The certifications and competency exams provided by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) are recognized or required by 38 states, and their Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification is the profession’s flagship credential.

After meeting eligibility requirements, candidates will need to pass a competency-based exam. The CDA exam has three main components: general chairside assisting (GCA); radiation health and safety (RHS); and infection control (ICE). DANB offers exam preparation tools and study materials. Exam fees total $450.

DANB also offers the following certifications and exams for dental assistants:

  • National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)
  • State-Specific Exams for Dental Assistants

American Medical Technologists (AMT) offers a supplementary certification pathway for dental assistants through its Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) credential. Candidates can qualify through a mixture of professional education and work experience.

Once deemed eligible, candidates must pass a 210-question exam that covers the following areas: office assisting skills; dental sciences; clinical procedures; and dental imaging. Exam fees total $120. Those who hold the RDA credential will need to recertify every three years through the accrual of continuing education units.

State Requirements for Dental Assistants

Requirements, job titles, and scopes of practice for dental assistants vary from state to state, and it’s important for dental assistants to stay compliant. DANB has a nationwide map that includes information for each state on job titles, requirements, and resources for dental assistants. They also published a 2020 report, State of the States, which checks-in on new regulations and requirements across the country. And for dental assistants looking to find their state’s requirements on continuing dental education (CDE), the DALE Foundation has a map for that, too.

Dental Assistants and Covid-19

As health professionals, dental assistants have both felt the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and joined in the fight against it. An October 2020 survey found that 65 percent of dental assistants had been asked to perform new and additional duties during the pandemic. These additional duties have included: screening patients for Covid-19; implementing social distancing measures; performing additional infection control procedures; and filling in for absent staff.

Those extra duties come on top of the fact that dental assistants are near the highest levels of occupational risk for contracting Covid-19. That’s part of the reason why the California Dental Association has called for California to include dental team members, a category that includes dental assistants, in phase one of the Covid-19 vaccine distribution plan.

Vaccinated or not, dental assistants will continue to don personal protective equipment (PPE), adhere to strict infection control procedures, and stand on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How to Get Involved in Dental Assistants Recognition Week

Across the nation, dental professionals celebrate Dental Assistant Recognition Week through DIY events, blogs, contests, and advocacy. But this year, as the world continues its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, social media is a more important tool than it’s ever been.

You can participate in Dental Assistants Recognition Week by starting and joining Facebook events, using the Twitter hashtag #DARW2021, and sharing photos on Instagram. Outside of social media, you can encourage your facility or institution to issue a press release, run a spot announcement, or petition local politicians to sign a DARW proclamation. Big or small, each engagement helps raise awareness around dental assistants and the vital work they do.

If you want to learn more about dental assistants, and the issues that matter to them most, check out some of the organizations below:

  • American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA): The oldest and largest group representing dental assistants, ADAA seeks to advance the careers of dental assistants and advocate for the dental assisting profession.
  • American Medical Technologists (AMT): With over 87,000 members, 10 certifications, and 80 years of experience, AMT offers career support to healthcare professionals in medical technology roles.
  • Dental Assisting National Board (DANB): Founded in 1980, DANB has certified nearly 37,000 dental assistants who are currently working today. In addition to certification, DANB offers authoritative information on state guidelines and other issues pertinent to dental assisting.
  • Dental Advancement through Learning and Education Foundation (DALE): An independent affiliate of DANB, the nonprofit DALE Foundation provides quality education and conducts rigorous research in order to promote oral health.
Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.