Registered vs. Certified Dental Assistant
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. 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 a 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 $450 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 its own requirements, read on to learn more about the general pathways to follow 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:
|Duration of Credential||One year||Duration of credential varies from state to state.|
||Renewal requirements vary from state to state.|
|State/Local Requirements||Requirements vary by state.||Requirements vary by state.|
RDA and CDA Credentials: Are They Worth Pursuing?
Since each state has its 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 just over $2 more per hour on average and certified CDAs stay with their employers for an average of eight years (DANB).
Having 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
Occupational 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 36,900 new dental assistant jobs will be created between 2020 and 2030 (BLS 2021). This 11 percent rate of growth is faster than the expected average growth among all U.S. occupations during the same decade (8 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.
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.
Dental Assistant Salary – How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021) found an average annual salary of $42,510 among the 347,170 dental assistants employed nationwide.
|Number of Dental Assistants Employed||347,170|
|Annual mean wage||$42,310|
|50th Percentile (Median)||$38,660|
It’s important to note that these figures also varied based on the source of data. By illustration, Indeed (April 2022) found an average annual salary of $63,714 among United States dental assistants.
Payscale (April 2022), found the following percentiles nationally:
- 10th percentile: $25,000
- 50th percentile (median): $35,812
- 90th percentile: $51,000