Saturday, December 2, 2023

Looking at smiles all day long

The Rewarding Life of a Dental Assistant

Everyone knows what dentists do. The person wearing the lab coat whose name is on the door examines your teeth and mouth to identify cavities and other oral problems and treats them. The hygienist inspects your gums and cleans your teeth to keep them healthy and sparkling. But what about dental assistants? What do they do? In many practices, the answer is “just about everything else.”

Dental assistants assume a variety of roles. Clinical dental assistants work directly with patients, taking X-rays and intraoral photographs, completing health assessments, educating patients, assisting dentists during procedures, cleaning and polishing teeth, taking impressions, and applying sealants. Dental assistants also work in labs, constructing dentures, crowns, and bridges, and altering and repairing dental devices. They assume administrative positions at the front desk, too, scheduling appointments and managing patient records, or work in the billing department.

“You look at one dental office and you could have multiple dental assistants in one office,” said Vicki Brett, CDA, RDH, ECPI University’s Newport News Campus Dental Assistant Program Director. “They are such multitaskers. And because they can work so many different roles, they often end up becoming office managers.”

Dental assistants aren’t limited to general dentistry either. Oral surgeons, endodontists (dentists who specialize in diseased teeth and root canals), orthodontists, periodontists (gum specialists) and prosthodontists (dentists who specialize in implants) all need dental assistants on staff.

“Most people don’t know there’s such a wide range of job opportunities out there for dental assistants,” Brett said. “Our assistants are trained to work in all of these roles and specialties.”

Nikki Payne is one of ECPI University’s recent dental assistant program graduates. She knew early on she wanted to work in a specialty office.

“I wasn’t really interested in going to a general office,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do oral surgery. But I was also interested in the lab side. The good thing about dental assisting is it’s such a broad field. You aren’t stuck in one area.”

With so many positions available, it’s easy to see why the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the dental assistant workforce, 95 percent of which is female, will increase at a rate of 19 percent between 2016 and 2026, a “much faster” growth rate as compared with the 7 percent average increase projected for all occupations. Citing job growth, upward mobility, and work-life balance, dental assisting was named in the top 25 of U.S. News and World Report’s Best Health Care Support Jobs for 2018.

The average mean wage of dental assistants in Virginia in 2016 was $40,690, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the hours are good.

“My hours right now are Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and we get an hour and half break, which is nice,” Payne said. “I get home at a reasonable time to be with my family.”

ECPI University dental assistant students get hands-on experience in the classroom and then are required to complete two externships before graduating. Payne parlayed her externships into a full-time position immediately upon graduating.

“I definitely felt prepared when I started working,” Payne said. “They had me working with patients from my very first day. I really couldn’t have asked for a better experience or a better career.”

This article was sponsored by ECPI University, where in 1.5 years, through its year-round schedule, you can earn an Associate of Applied Science degree in Health Science with a concentration in Dental Assisting. Click here to learn more.

To speak directly with an Admissions Representative at ECPI University Newport News, please contact Jonathan Holt, Director of Admissions, to discuss degree and continuing education programs.

Jonathan can be reached at 757-849-0548 or


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