Young professional holding dental tools

What Do Dental Assistants Do?

Learn about the most common Dental Assisting duties, responsibilities, and procedures

Young professional holding dental tools

Dental Assisting can be a rewarding career path. Not only do Dental Assistants complete administrative and clinical tasks, but they strive to make life easier for patients and other oral health professionals. If you are passionate about using your hands and helping others, Dental Assisting may be the best career choice for you.

If you’re an aspiring Dental Assistant (DA), this article will cover some of the most common duties and procedures you may encounter throughout your career. We hope this information inspires you while pondering a possible future in healthcare.

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

What Duties Do Dental Assistants (DAs) Have?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers insight into a Dental Assistant’s typical roles and responsibilities. Of course, these tasks can vary depending on your location, employer, and experience level.

DAs typically perform the following duties:

  • Prepare patients for treatments and procedures
  • Sterilize dental instruments
  • Hand instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Dry each patient’s mouth using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Instruct patients on proper oral hygiene practices
  • Process X-rays and complete lab tasks under a dentist’s supervision
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Assist patients with billing and payment

Continue reading for a deeper dive into some of the duties and procedures typically performed by Dental Assistants.

1. Teeth Cleaning

Close up of a patient's teeth cleaning

What is Teeth Cleaning?

Teeth cleaning is a critical component of oral hygiene. It removes dental plaque from the teeth of patients, contributing to the prevention of cavities, gingivitis, and periodontal disease.

The process usually includes these steps:

  • Performing a physical exam
  • Removing plaque and tartar
  • Polishing the teeth
  • Flossing and locating trouble spots
  • Instructing the patient to rinse with mouthwash
  • Applying fluoride treatment

When Do DAs Perform Teeth Cleaning?

Dental Assistants do not clean teeth, as cleaning requires specialized training. However, they often assist dentists or dental hygienists during teeth cleaning by handing them instruments, sterilizing equipment before and after appointments, and communicating with the patients.

Learn More

Click here to learn How to Perform Teeth Cleanings

2. Dental X-rays

Dentist examining X-rays of teeth 

What Are Dental X-rays?

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.

Although it typically depends on the age and health of the patient, dental X-rays are usually taken once a year. However, children may require X-rays more often to accommodate their growing adult teeth.

When Do DAs Perform Dental X-rays?

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.

Learn More

Click here to learn How to Take Dental X-rays

3. Sterilizing Equipment

Medical professional handling equipment

What Does It Mean to Sterilize Equipment?

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.

When Do DAs Sterilize Equipment?

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.

Learn More

Click here to learn How to Sterilize Equipment

4. Take Vital Signs

Medical Assistant taking vital signs

What Are Vital Signs?

The term “vital signs” most often refers to a person’s pulse, respiration, temperature, and blood pressure. These medical signs give healthcare professionals a window into the patient’s essential bodily functions. They help assess a person’s general physical health and may provide clues to underlying diseases. They are also used to monitor a patient’s recovery after surgery.

When Do DAs Take Vital Signs?

While vital signs are not commonly measured in dental offices, doing so may provide significant benefits. For instance, dentists or Dental Assistants can use them to identify medical emergencies that may require immediate assistance.

  • Pulse rate: If a Dental Assistant takes their patient’s pulse rate, they should note if the pulse is overly weak or strong (this can indicate an underlying health issue). While the average pulse rate of a child is between 70 to 120 beats per minute, adults usually have a pulse rate between 60 and 100 beats per minute.
  • Respiration rate: Once a DA has taken the patient’s pulse rate, they count the number of breaths the patient takes for 15 seconds. Then, they multiply that number by four to determine the breaths per minute. For reference, the average, healthy adult takes between 12 and 20 breaths per minute.
  • Temperature: Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it has become much more common for Dental Assistants to take a patient’s temperature. The average body temperature of a healthy adult is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit when taken orally.
  • Blood Pressure: When taking a patient’s blood pressure, the DA should pay attention to both the systolic and diastolic pressures. The healthy range for adults and children can vary.

Learn More

Click here to learn How to Take Vital Signs

5. Preparing Patients for Surgery

Team of dental surgeons working on a patient

What Does it Mean to Prepare Patients for Surgery?

Patient surgery prep 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.

When Do DAs Prepare Patients for Surgery?

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 on oral hygiene, document dental care services, assist patients with paperwork, and perform other related tasks under a dentist’s supervision.

6. Taking Dental Impressions

Blue dental impressions of teeth and gums

What Are Dental Impressions?

Think of dental impressions as a “fingerprint” of your mouth. Essentially, they are a negative imprint of both the hard and soft tissues in your mouth. Dental professionals use these impressions to create a positive reproduction (i.e., a nightguard). First, a special putty is placed in an impression tray, and then the dental professional will fit the tray into your mouth and press it firmly over your teeth and gums. They let the impression harden for a few minutes before removing it.

When Do DAs Take Dental Impressions?

The frequency by which Dental Assistants take dental impressions can depend entirely on their location, specialization, and experience level. However, most DAs perform tasks related to dental impressions. A Dental Assistant may take impressions so that the dentist can use them for a range of dental restorations and appliances, such as:

  • Nightguards
  • Sports mouth guards
  • Retainers
  • Dental crowns, bridges, or implants
  • Dentures
  • Porcelain veneers
  • Clear aligners
  • Teeth whitening trays
  • Sleep apnea appliances

7. Orthodontic Appliances

Dentist holding a dental device

What Are Orthodontic Appliances?

Orthodontic appliances are devices for the treatment of a dental condition. Not only are there numerous types of orthodontic appliances, but they treat a wide range of issues. These issues may include crooked or crowded teeth, jaw irregularities, snoring, or sleep apnea.

If you’ve worn a retainer, you’ve already had experience with an orthodontic appliance. They usually fall into one of these primary categories: removable, fixed, or removable-fixed. However, one component that all orthodontic appliances have in common is that they are custom-made for both your teeth and your mouth. Dental professionals use X-rays and molds to ensure a perfect fit for each patient.

When Do DAs Take Orthodontic Appliances?

Dental Assistants will often examine orthodontic appliances in a dentist’s office. Once the dentist has made any necessary adjustments, their Dental Assistant may look or seat removable orthodontic appliances. They can also deliver care instructions to the patient. In this profession, you will typically see orthodontic appliances when patients need help to straighten their teeth.

8. Dental Billing and Insurance

Close up of a tooth in front of an accountant

What is Dental Billing and Insurance?

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.

Below are some critical steps to follow:

  1. Gather patient information
  2. Confirm their insurance coverage
  3. Document each dental treatment and its code data
  4. Submit and track claims plus any attachments
  5. Resolve issues with outstanding claims
  6. Bill patients as needed
  7. Post payments
  8. Create key reports for collections, aging account reports, etc.

When Do DAs Perform Dental Billing Tasks?

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.

9. Prepare Tray Set-ups

Dental tools arranged on a tray

What Does It Mean to Prepare Tray Setups?

Dental Assistants prepare trays for each patient’s room. The basic arrangement of dental instruments often includes two dental mirrors, two cotton pliers, metal or plastic periodontal probe, a suction holder, and a hemostat. Other essential tools include surgical scissors, retractors, and scalpels.

When Do DAs Prepare Tray Set-ups?

Dental Assistants will likely be required to prepare tray setups for dentists and dental hygienists before each patient’s exam. It may sound like a simple procedure, but this task is essential to the dental office’s examination process and success. In addition, a DA assists the dental team by preparing the patient and exam room.

10. Dental Appointment Scheduling

Screen for patient scheduling

What is Dental Appointment Scheduling?

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.

When Do DAs Schedule Dental Appointments?

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.

Jumpstart Your Dental Assisting Career

Unitek College offers several healthcare programs for aspiring medical professionals, including our Dental Assisting program.

Take the first step toward a rewarding future in healthcare by learning about our programs and tuition assistance options.