National Dental Assistants Recognition Week 2022: An Expert's Guide to Advocacy

“Everybody in an office is busy doing their own roles, and it usually falls on the dental assistant to pull all the pieces together. We keep our eyes on the sterilization and disinfection, we manage the schedule and know where the doctor needs to go next, we do all the ordering for the office, and we keep our pulse on patient care.”
Ms. Nicole Pahl, Program Director for Lake Area Technical College Dental Assisting Program

This year’s Dental Assistants Recognition Week (DARW) takes place March 6-12, 2022. 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 Passionate About our Patients, Passionate About Our Profession.

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.

Ms. Nicole Pahl, Lake Area Technical College dental assisting program director, knows that dental assistants are essential to any dental practice. “I think there is a tendency to think that dental assistants are just chairside. However, we really encompass the whole office. We run and grab lunch if somebody needs it, we help the front desk, we help the hygienists, the doctor, the lab tech. We assist in all aspects of the dental office. It’s not just chairside, it’s actually every single thing that happens in that office involves a dental assistant at some point.”

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.

Meet the Expert: Nicole Pahl, Lake Area Technical College

Nicole Pahl

For more than a decade, Ms. Nicole Pahl has been the program director and faculty member for the dental assisting program at Lake Area Technical College. She graduated with her associate’s in dental assisting from Lake Area Technical College and then went on to work for private dental offices. She then pursued a bachelor’s of arts in educational psychology from Mount Marty University.

Ms. Pahl currently leads courses in anatomy and preclinical science, which encompasses sterilization techniques.

The Value of Dental Assistants

“I don’t know that you can place a value on a dental assistant. Any office that has a dental assistant out for an illness like Covid-19, will realize that you cannot undervalue, or even overvalue, an assistant,” says Ms. Pahl.

“The dental assistant often will be the glue that holds an office together. Everybody in an office is busy doing their own roles, and it usually falls on the dental assistant to pull all the pieces together. We keep our eyes on the sterilization and disinfection, we manage the schedule and know where the doctor needs to go next, we do all the ordering for the office, and we keep our pulse on patient care. If dental assistants are not there, pieces start falling apart.”

In 2016, the most recent data available, 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.

In South Dakota, where Ms. Pahl’s program is located, dental assistants do not need to be certified. However, she notes that there is still value in obtaining certification. “I’ve noticed a lot of the oral surgeons would like applicants to have that national certification as well as some of the more progressive dental offices. When you walk into a dental office, and you see certifications on the wall, it lets patients know that the people working there might actually know what they’re talking about,” she shares. “When I’ve been in an office checking on students, some have everybody’s certifications up on the wall, and that is a source of pride for the employers.”

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 $135. 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.

DANB 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. Dental office professionals who worked directly with patients were included at the beginning of many state’s vaccination efforts. Now, with widespread vaccination available, states such as California have mandated that dental staff be vaccinated.

When the pandemic hit, Ms. Pahl’s students were already well prepared. “In one of our classes, we talk about pandemics. We cover what can happen if we ignore sterilization and disinfection and what happens with bacteria and viruses. I have always told them a pandemic is a possibility, and they never believed me. Then when this happened, they were like, ‘oh my goodness! You told us about this!’. Luckily, we prepare our students for the worst possible scenario.”

She continues, “We had our students already trained to wear the face shields, masks, and full PPE. In class we talked about masks versus respirators, head wraps and gowns that are disposable so that you don’t have to touch them, and double gloving. The role of the dental assistant during the pandemic has been one of being prepared, making sure everybody had what they needed, as well as reassuring patients that they are getting the best care.”

Even with vaccines and boosters, 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 Assistants 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.

“I always love to recognize this week,” says Ms. Pahl. “I will be honest with you and tell you that probably about five or six years ago, nobody ever said anything about it. It’s really been within the last few years that people have been recognizing their dental assistants, that which is near and dear to my heart.”

To Ms. Pahl, recognition can look a lot of different ways. “Patients can let us know with just their smiles at the end of treatment or a genuine thank you. Sometimes, that’s all I need. When I see them go to the car and check out their teeth in the rearview mirror or they pull out their phone to take a selfie with their new teeth, to me, that is more of a thank you than somebody giving me something,” she shares.

“I think it would be nice if employers just simply gave a thank you. Sometimes we do things on autopilot, and we forget that we need to recognize people. Take time to put a few words down on a card and say what your dental assistant means to the practice. Words go further, in my opinion, than flowers or cake or anything.”

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.
Kimmy Gustafson
Kimmy Gustafson Writer

With her passion for uncovering the latest innovations and trends, Kimmy Gustafson has provided valuable insights and has interviewed experts to provide readers with the latest information in the rapidly evolving field of medical technology since 2019. Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.