Smiling dental professionals with a patient in an exam room

A Day in the Life of a Dental Assistant

Explore the Challenges and Rewards of a Dental Assisting Career

Smiling dental professionals with a patient in an exam room

If you’re considering a career as a Dental Assistant (DA) but need more information, this blog post could serve as a great resource for you. Dental Assistants have great interpersonal skills, and they prefer to work with their hands rather than at a desk. They also maintain impressive dexterity and support dentists while patients are treated.

Some benefits of Dental Assisting include a sunny job outlook, career stability, and versatility at work. Not only do Dental Assistants complete administrative and clinical tasks, but they strive to make life easier for patients and other oral health professionals.

In this blog post, we dip our toes into the world of Dental Assistants. Our goal is to provide you with a deeper look at the challenges and rewards that define these outstanding professionals. Although no two days are alike, we’ve done our best to give you a better idea of their daily lives. Explore what life is like for a DA, from arriving on the job to daily tasks and responsibilities.

(Click here to learn how to become a Dental Assistant.)

Dental Assistant Schedule

What is a Typical Dental Assistant Schedule?

Most Dental Assistants work full-time and, on occasion, may complete evening or weekend shifts. However, many DAs can expect to fill some variation of a nine-to-five schedule. They usually find work in dental offices or clinics throughout the country.

Of course, each DA’s schedule will vary depending on the clinic’s exact hours and the DA’s responsibilities. For instance, some Dental Assistants might be required to prepare exam rooms and open the clinic. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the details of their day, from clocking in to clocking out.

Clocking In as a Dental Assistant

Every weekday (and perhaps some weekends), the Dental Assistant will open the office and turn on the equipment. This might include compressors, sterilization machines, flushing the water lines, and more. Afterward, a DA will usually meet with their colleagues and discuss the patient schedule for the day. Then, it’ll be the DA’s job to set up trays for each appointment, ensure all instruments have been sterilized, and prep the exam rooms.

Tray setups are particularly important because every procedure requires various instruments and supplies. This means that there must be a separate tray setup for each patient. While prepping the exam rooms, Dental Assistants will also ensure that they are stocked with gauze, cotton rolls, napkins, and more. DAs perform this task throughout the day as well.

Once everything is ready, the DA can assist with patient check-ins and serve as the face of the office. One of their biggest priorities is to ensure the comfort of each and every patient. If you think about it, Dental Assistants offer support to dentists, dental hygienists, and patients. They are truly the glue of the oral health team.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Daily Duties and Responsibilities of a Dental Assistant

During their shift, a DA will perform many tasks. These diverse roles include but are not limited to patient care, recordkeeping, and appointment scheduling. Although their duties vary by state and employer, here are some of their typical duties and responsibilities:

  • Ensuring patients are comfortable in the dental chair
  • Preparing patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
  • Assisting with oral surgeries
  • Sterilizing dental instruments
  • Handing instruments to the dentist during procedures
  • Evacuating oral cavities and keeping the patient’s mouth dry by using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Making dental impressions
  • Instructing patients in proper oral hygiene
  • Taking and processing dental X-rays and completing lab tasks under the direction of a dentist
  • Maintaining inventory for dental practices
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Working with patients on billing and payment

Dental team members with a patient

Dental Assistants are allowed to perform the following procedures in some states, including California:

  • Coronal polishing– Removing soft deposits such as plaque which gives teeth a cleaner appearance.
  • Sealant application– A thin, plastic substance painted over teeth to seal out food particles and acid-producing bacteria, which will help prevent cavities.
  • Fluoride application– Fluoride is put directly on the teeth as another anti-cavity measure.
  • Topical anesthetic application– Applied to an area of a patient’s mouth, temporarily numbing it to help prepare them for procedures.

(Click here to learn about Dental Assistants vs. Dental Hygienists.)

Chairside Assistance

Dental Assistants support dentists and dental hygienists during various procedures. In addition to handling dental instruments and materials, they provide chairside assistance to patients, speaking to them in a calm and reassuring manner.

Teeth cleaning is one common procedure that DAs can assist dental hygienists with, allowing them to act as an extra pair of hands. This is an important process that removes dental plaque from the teeth of patients, contributing to the prevention of cavities, gingivitis, and periodontal disease.

Radiography and Imaging

Dental radiographs, or X-rays, contain images of your teeth that a dentist can use to monitor your oral health. Low radiation levels create a still image of a patient’s gums and teeth interior. They allow dentists to identify problems or potential issues, such as cavities, impacted teeth, tooth decay, and more. X-rays may also determine if there’s bone loss and malignant or benign masses.

The frequency of Dental Assistants taking X-rays depends on their training and location. For instance, DAs in California must obtain their California Radiation Safety (X-ray) certificate before taking X-rays in a dental office. Additionally, those who apply for the Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) licensure must submit proof of completion for an approved radiation safety course. Once all the requirements have been met, DAs in certain states can take X-rays of patients, providing the dentist with valuable insight into each client’s health.

Administrative Duties

There are several administrative tasks that many DAs perform. These often include dental billing and insurance and dental appointment scheduling for patients. Dental billing is collecting payment for services performed. The process has two parts: patient billing and insurance claims processing. These are the two primary revenue streams for most dental practices.

Dental Assistants may handle the insurance claims of their patients. They can process these claims by collecting insurance information from patients and sending bills to insurance companies. In some cases, DAs may even work as salespeople.

On the other hand, dental scheduling involves allocating specific times for exams and handling customer service inquiries. This includes familiarity with wave scheduling, modified wave scheduling, double booking, open booking, clustering or categorization, self-scheduling, and more. Dental schedulers will also perform these tasks for several offices in some situations.

In many oral health offices, Dental Assistants are responsible for creating and maintaining a daily or weekly schedule of appointments. They also prepare a copy for dentists as well as other dental professionals. DAs play a vital role in the dental practice, performing both clinical and administrative job functions.

Close up of a Dental Assistant sterilizing equipment

Sterilization and Infection Control

The act of equipment sterilization is precisely like it sounds: a dental professional disinfects the equipment using steam sterilization, dry heat sterilization, or unsaturated chemical vapor sterilization. Critical and heat-stable instruments are sterilized after each use by one of these methods:

  • Steam sterilization (autoclaves): This technique uses a specified temperature, pressure, and time to kill microorganisms.
  • Dry heat sterilizers: This method forces hot air to rise within an oven-like chamber through natural convection.
  • Unsaturated chemical vapor sterilizers: The combination of alcohol, formaldehyde, acetone, ketone, and water produces a vapor that sanitizes instruments.

Dental Assistants are commonly in charge of infection control. They must bag instruments for sterilization, a vital step that no DA should ever skip. They must wait for the tools to complete every cycle and only remove them once they are dry.

Patient Education and Comfort

Dental Assistants fill a vital role when it comes to educating patients about oral hygiene and post-treatment care. If you think about it, clear communication can not only help prepare patients for procedures, but it can help alleviate their anxiety and give them a better experience overall.

While assisting dentists during exams, Dental Assistants can speak with patients and reassure them. They may walk them through what the dentist is doing, joke with the patient, or distract them from their discomfort. DAs often walk patients through aftercare, which can help prevent infection and potential medical issues.

Another area to consider is patient surgery prep. This is the process of preparing patients both mentally and physically to receive dental care. The idea of dental surgery can be stressful and cause anxiety, particularly for children. Dental assistants must carefully explain procedural risks so patients can provide informed consent. Some dental professionals use brochures or other written materials to help prepare patients. They may also perform follow-up phone calls and allocate extra time for questions or concerns.

Although the rules can vary by state, Dental Assistants may be allowed to help prepare patients for surgery. They help patients feel comfortable, provide follow-up instructions, educate them on oral hygiene, document dental care services, assist patients with paperwork, and perform other related tasks under a dentist’s supervision.

Dental professional taking notes in a room

Clocking Out as a Dental Assistant

As a DA’s demanding yet satisfying shift nears its end, there’s still crucial work to be done to ensure a smooth transition and the well-being of both the patients and the DAs themselves. Before leaving their office or clinic, DAs must clean each room and prepare them for the next day’s patients. In addition, Dental Assistants must ensure that the sterilization equipment is efficiently running, clean suction trays, and flush water lines before they can turn off any compressors.

Dental Assistants may also make some post-op calls to patients who endured major treatments that day. Plus, there could be lab work that needs to be packaged and shipped before the DA leaves.

Gain the Skills Needed to Become a Dental Assistant

As you can see from this blog post, most days are not mundane or routine when it comes to being a Dental Assistant! Not only can Dental Assistants learn something new each day, but they also get to meet unique people and fill an important role on a great team. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) has called this profession fast-paced, educational, ever-changing, and ultimately rewarding.

As DANB has also said, each day brings a new opportunity to help other people. Changing someone’s smile or alleviating their pain is truly a reward in itself. When you think about how DAs can help boost self-confidence, gratitude, and happiness, it’s hard not to smile.

Without a doubt, Dental Assistants play an important role in dentistry. They not only support dentists on a daily basis, but their actions support the general well-being of their communities. Furthermore, the short duration of DA programs allows busy adults to enter the field quickly, making this profession both convenient and attainable.

Start your journey by joining the Dental Assisting program at Unitek College and discover how to become a DA. If you need more information first, check out our other blog post and learn how to prepare for Dental Assistant school.

At Unitek College, we want to prepare you for success in the field of healthcare. Join us today!