Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) vs. Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)

Having a clean bill of oral health is vital—maintaining healthy teeth and gums allows people to smile confidently, speak clearly, and chew food well. In order to create a positive patient experience and encourage people to come in for regular check-ups, dental clinics rely on highly-trained teams of professionals to serve patients’ oral healthcare needs. Dental assistants play integral administrative and clinical roles in dental practices and support the needs of patients as well as dental hygienists and dentists.

Two credentials are available for dental assistants: a registered dental assistant (RDA) and certified dental assistant (CDA). The requisite education is the main differentiating factor between the two. When considering a career in dental assisting, it is important to understand both credential options in order to find the educational training program that is best suited to future career plans.

Registered dental assistants (RDAs) generally have more educational requirements than certified dental assistants. RDAs are trained to perform administrative and clinical duties, including scheduling patients for future exams, preparing clinical spaces, assisting the dentist or dental hygienist with a procedure by handing them instruments, taking x-rays, administering topical anesthesia, and other non-invasive clinical tasks.

Most RDAs complete a dental assistant program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). RDA degree programs typically take one to two years to complete, and students in these programs graduate with a diploma in one year or an associate’s degree in two years.

Upon completing a CODA-accredited program, future RDAs are eligible to sit for state licensing exams. Many states require proof of engagement in continuing education in order to maintain RDA credentialing. Renewal terms and requirements for RDA certification vary from state to state.

Certified dental assistants, by contrast, typically have fewer formal education requirements compared to RDAs. CDAs are generally responsible for performing the same administrative and clinical duties as RDAs in assisting patients and dental clinic staff with administrative and clinical tasks including: inputting medical records, scheduling appointments, leading patients to examination chairs, asking questions regarding a patient’s dental health history, and reviewing the process of dental procedures with patients prior to treatment.

CDA certification is offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) and prospective applicants are eligible to take the CDA certification exam offered by DANB through a variety of professional pathways, namely on-the-job experience, military experience, or completion of a dental assisting educational program not accredited by CODA. The CDA certification exam costs $425 is divided into three parts: general chairside assisting, radiation health and safety, and infection control.

Renewal for CDA certification is required annually through DANB and requires proof of continuing dental education credits as well as current cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other health-related certifications.

Of course, not all dental assistants are required to have credentials—although they are highly recommended—and each state has unique employment rules governing the educational and certification requirements for this career. Aspiring dental assistants should take care to research the various pathways and requirements for the profession, including degree programs, supervised on-the-job training, and certification exams.

Keeping in mind that each state has their own requirements, read on to learn more about the general pathways to follow in order to become a registered dental assistant (RDA) or a certified dental assistant (CDA).

Side-by-Side Comparison: RDA vs CDA

Here is a side-by-side table to compare the professional and educational pathways towards becoming a registered dental assistant and a certified dental assistant.

Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)
Credentialing Organization Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) Dental Assisting National Boards (DANB)
Eligibility & Education Graduate from a one- or two-year CODA-accredited dental assisting program with a diploma or an associate’s degree. Multiple forms of educational and work experience requirements are accepted. Applicants can:
  • Graduate from a one- or two-year dental assisting diploma or degree program.
  • Gain two years of supervised clinical experience in a dental clinic prior to taking DANB exams.
  • Apply clinical military work experience as a dental assistant prior to taking DANB exams.
Duration of Credential One year Duration of credential varies from state to state.
Renewal Requirements
  • Earning continuing education dental requirements
  • Holding current DANB-accepted CPR certification
  • Submission of renewal fee
Renewal requirements vary from state to state.
Specializations
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery
  • Orthodontics
  • Endodontics
  • Periodontics
  • Pediatric dentistry
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery
  • Orthodontics
  • Endodontics
  • Periodontics
  • Pediatric dentistry
Job Duties
  • Help patients feel comfortable prior to, during, and after dental treatment
  • Teach dental patients about oral hygiene best practices
  • Schedule appointments
  • Billing and ordering supplies
  • Provide patients with post-procedure aftercare instructions
  • Take and develop dental x-rays
  • Assist dentists and dental hygienists during dental procedures
  • Ask patients about their medical history
  • Sterilize dental instruments and equipment prior to and after use
  • Take impressions of patients’ teeth
  • Help patients feel comfortable prior to, during, and after dental treatment
  • Teach dental patients about oral hygiene best practices
  • Schedule appointments
  • Billing and ordering supplies
  • Provide patients with post-procedure aftercare instructions
  • Take and develop dental x-rays
  • Assist dentists and dental hygienists during dental procedures
  • Ask patients about their medical history
  • Sterilize dental instruments and equipment prior to and after use
  • Take impressions of patients’ teeth
State/Local Requirements Requirements vary by state. Requirements vary by state.

RDA and CDA Credentials: Are They Worth Pursuing?

Since each state has their own requirements for dental assistants, incoming dental assisting professionals from states that do not require certification might wonder: is pursuing certification worthwhile?

The answer is yes! Pursuing professional certification adds value to a dental assistant’s professional skills and a dental clinic’s reputation. A study conducted by DANB shows that dental assistants with certification are paid more and tend to have more employer loyalty. According to the results of this survey, CDAs holding a certification credential through DANB earn $2.01 more per hour on average and certified CDAs stay with their employers for an average of eight years (DANB).

Being in possession of professional certification also widens the range of employment opportunities for dental assistants since some dental clinics consider a certification credential to be a minimum job requirement.

Career Outlook for Dental Assistants

Cccupational data shows that dental assisting is among the fast-growing careers in the United States. Due to the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act and other factors, more children and adults are accessing oral healthcare than before, which in turn is creating a demand for educated and trained dental assistants.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 38,700 new dental assistant jobs will be created between 2018 and 2028 (BLS 2019). This 11 percent rate of growth is much faster than the expected average growth among all U.S. occupations during the same decade (5 percent).

Beyond providing high quality patient care, dental clinics are also responding to changing consumer trends in oral health. These days, dental practices are responding to consumer interest and expanding their patient care to include services such as cosmetic dentistry and teeth whitening. Research conducted by the American Dental Association (ADA) in 2016 shows that adults in the United States spend anywhere between $492 to $785 a year for dental health premiums, the higher costs of care being correlated with older age (ADA).

The ADA also reported that since more people are keeping their teeth as they age, consumer-based dental services such as cosmetic dentistry and teeth whitening are creating an increased demand for optional, non-reimbursable services to keep teeth looking well (ADA).

If the current trends highlighted by the ADA prove to be true, as adults live longer, the need for clinical dental care and consumer-based oral health services will continue to increase. As a result, job opportunities for highly qualified dental assistants are projected to remain in high demand.