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Complete Guide to Online Dental Assistant Programs

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Quick Facts
Accreditation: CODA
Available Degrees: Bachelor's, Certificate
Avg Tuition: $18,077
Avg Salary: $85,167
Certification: Available but not required.
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In modern dentistry, dental assistants have become indispensable for high-quality oral care. Many dental schools today are training dentists in the method of four-handed dentistry, where a dental assistant and dentist work together to more efficiently perform clinical tasks. Online dental assistant programs prepare students for the various tasks related to the position, including sterilizing and preparing instruments for a patient's clinical visit, greeting new patients, and preparing patients in the dental chair. They can remove oral sutures, process X-rays, make oral casts, and perform a variety of other clinical tasks. Some dental assistants also perform administrative duties, such as answering phones and scheduling patient appointments.  

Many states have licensure and certification requirements for dental assistants, although the specific requirements vary by state. Some states require dental assistants to graduate from a Commission on Dental Accreditation-accredited dental assisting program and pass an exam to obtain a license. Read More

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Comprehensive List of Colleges & Universities for an Online Dental Assistant Degree

Overview of Available Online Dental Assistant Programs

Online dental assistant training programs generally take one to two years to complete and teach students how to provide administrative and chair-side assistance in the dentist office. Certificates train students in practical clinical tasks, oral health, medical science, and professional demeanor; associate dental assisting programs include this training, plus a series of courses in liberal arts topics. Most programs require students to complete an internship in a dental office to gain hands-on skills and experience. Accredited dental assistant programs prepare graduates to enter this high-growth career directly after graduation. Some states require dental assistants to pass the Certified Dental Assistant examination after completing an accredited dental assisting program in order to perform certain clinical tasks and work in the field, so prospective students should verify the licensing requirements in their state before choosing a training program.

Dental assisting programs have minimal admissions requirements. Most require a high school diploma or a GED; however, admission is rarely contingent upon high school grades or entrance exam scores. This means that even students who have historically not performed well academically can still have an opportunity to study to become a dental assistant, usually improving their career prospects significantly.

Online Dental Assistant Certificates

Dental assisting certificate programs train students to help dentists in a range of administrative and clinical capacities. Students learn how to perform a range of functions inside the dental office, such as taking care of dental instruments, assisting during dental procedures, taking oral X-rays, teaching patients about post-visit oral care, and other support tasks.

Completion of a dental assistant certificate program takes one year of full-time study and generally requires a significant amount of hands-on training in clinical dental tasks. Students should only consider attending dental assisting schools accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, especially if they live in a state that requires dental assistants to be licensed. Nearly all states require licensure for certified dental assistants; to obtain a license, applicants must graduate from an accredited dental assistant program and pass a licensing exam.

Most programs begin with a class in oral anatomy, which provides students with a basic medical understanding of the physical makeup of the teeth and gums. Some dental assistant certificate programs may also require more general science classes, like anatomy and physiology or microbiology, which give students a scientific background of the body and introductory health issues. The bulk of most dental assistant certificate programs is made up of practical courses that teach students dental techniques. For example, a dental materials course is meant to familiarize students with the many instruments and tools in the dental office and teach them how to properly clean and care for them. Most programs also contain several classes in dental radiology, in which dental students learn the skills to safely take X-rays of patients’ teeth. Since dental assistants also perform administrative tasks in addition to clinical ones, most certificates also include a class or two in dental office management, which covers topics like bookkeeping and scheduling appointments.

Certified dental assistants work closely with patients and will need supervised hands-on dental assisting experience. Some online dental assisting programs are designed for currently employed dental assistants who are completing the educational program in order to become certified; the employing dentist is thus responsible for the student’s clinical training. Other programs allow students to take some courses online, like dental office administration, while requiring them to come to campus for clinical classes.

Online Bachelor's Dental Assistant Degrees

Dental assistant positions do not generally require a bachelor's dental assisting degree. Most jobs will require that dental assistants have a dental assistant diploma or certificate from an accredited trade program, while others do not have formal education requirements. A bachelor's degree in dental hygiene will require that students have a high school diploma. The degree will take two years to complete and consist of approximately 120 units.

Bachelor's degrees in dental hygiene will aptly prepare all students for jobs as dental assistants. Common courses in this program will be dental hygiene, dental practices, oral health, oral biology and radiology, oral health practicum, clinical cases, dental hygiene research and current issues, community health, ethics, customer relationships, communication, legal aspects of healthcare, health information systems, and disease prevention. In addition to classes, students will also need to complete hands-on work in dental practice labs and shadow a professional for a set number of hours to complete their degree program.

A bachelor's degree in dental hygiene will be more than sufficient for a position as a dental assistant. This educational step can also help graduates get jobs as dental hygienists in clinics and other private practice facilities. A bachelor's degree may also allow experienced graduates to provide leadership in a dental office and open up opportunities for as management, education, or research in addition to dental assisting job tasks.

Licensing Requirements for Dental Assistants

The majority of states require dental assistants to be licensed, but the requirements to earn the license vary from state to state. Individual state boards of dentistry are an excellent source of information for licensure requirements. Dental assistants seeking dental X-ray certification may take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). DANB also provides state-specific information regarding licensure for dental assisting practice. Many state boards of dentistry, as well as the District of Columbia, use the CDA exam to certify dental assistants for practice.

The CDA exam includes three components: Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) consists of 100 multiple-choice questions, Infection Control (IC) consists of 100 multiple-choice questions, and General Chairside (GC) consists of 120 multiple-choice questions. In order to apply for CDA certification, dental assistants must attain a passing score in all three components. They may take the exams separately or combined. Candidates for the RHS and ICE exams are not required to meet any eligibility requirements. Those who attain a passing score in these exams are awarded a certificate of competency. If you wish to take all three exams together or the GC component alone, you must meet eligibility requirements under any of the three pathways outlined below.

Pathway I

  • Candidate must have graduated from an approved dental assisting or dental hygiene program.
  • Candidate must submit current cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification from an approved CPR provider.

Pathway II

  • Candidate must hold a high school diploma or its equivalent.
  • Candidate must have practiced as a dental assistant for a period of two to four years and accumulated at least 3,500 working hours. A licensed dentist must verify such employment.
  • Current CPR certification is required.

Pathway III

  • Candidates may be current or former CDA certificate recipients, or they may have graduated from an approved doctoral dental program, or they may be graduates of a dental degree program beyond the United States or Canada.
  • Candidates must submit current CPR certification.

Dental assistants are required to apply for certification within five years of passing all three exams. Once applicants earn the CDA certification, it will be valid for one year; certified dental assistants are required to renew their certification annually in order to maintain its validity. Requirements for recertification include completing a minimum of 12 credits of Continuing Dental Education (CDE) and maintaining current CPR status.

A well-developed study plan is an effective preparation strategy that will enhance your chances of taking the CDA exam successfully. Aspects of a good study plan include the following:

  1. Exam Blueprints: The DANB has developed outlines of content likely to be covered in the CDA certification exam. Using DANB exam blueprints along with the right reference material helps students prepare for the exams.
  2. Reference Materials: Obtaining the right reference materials helps in thorough preparation for the exams. You may want to check the DANB site for a variety of recommended CDA exam reference materials.
  3. Review Courses: Candidates for the CDA exam can benefit from interactive review courses and study aids offered by the Dale Foundation.

Career Overview for Dental Assistants

Trained dental assistants will have truly excellent job prospects in the next few years, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an extremely rapid 36 percent growth in dental assisting jobs by 2018; this is roughly three times the national average for all jobs. The aging US population is more concerned with dental care and will be causing an increase in the need for all types of dental workers. And, as new dentists replace those retiring from the field, they are more likely to employ dental assistants to help them in their practice.

Dental assistants perform routine administrative and support services in dental practices. Depending on the state, these assistants may be able to complete certain clinical tasks, such as applying topical anesthetics or developing X-rays. Dental assistants should not be confused with dental hygienists, who are in charge of cleaning patients' teeth and educating them about dental hygiene.

Common tasks of the dental assistant include the following:

  • Assembling the implements the dentist needs prior to a patient visit.
  • Assisting during cleaning or examinations by operating suction equipment and handing dentists tools.
  • Billing patients and insurance companies for services.
  • Cleaning the tools and examination room after patient visits.
  • Maintaining patient records.

The dental assistant profession has grown in recent years, as dental services have become an increasingly important part of the health services sector. Dental assistants help dental practices increase the overall quality of care and the number of patients the facility can see.

The Importance of Accreditation for Dental Assistant Programs

Depending on the state in which you plan on working, graduating from an accredited program may be vital for landing a job. Accreditation is an indication of a high-quality, professional dental assistant program, and you may need to complete an accredited program in order to do more complex tasks during your work. The Commission on Dental Accreditation is the major accrediting body for dental professional programs. All accredited programs include a combination of information-based courses with hands-on clinical training. Graduating from an accredited program is one way to qualify to sit for the Certified Dental Assistant Exam.

Choosing an accredited dental assistant program allows students access to adequate financial aid. Only accredited programs can disperse federal financial student loans and grants, which make up the bulk of student funding. Plus, any student who is choosing an associate dental assistant degree program because they hope to transfer their credits to a four-year university should consider an accredited program to make the transfer process easier. Dental assistant training programs must be recognized by either a regional accrediting board or an accrediting board that is dedicated to the training of dental assistant, and the accrediting board must be approved by the US Department of Education.

What Students Will Learn in an Online Dental Assistant Program

Students in a dental assisting program learn how to complete a variety of clinical assistive tasks. They learn how to prepare an exam room for the patient and sterilize dental equipment. Students also learn chair-side assistance -- how to work with the dentist or hygienist during a patient visit. For example, the assistant may hold a suction hose in the patient's mouth during a cleaning. Dental assistants also learn how to work in dental labs, performing responsibilities such as producing temporary crowns or casts of a patient's teeth.

The education requirements for dental assistants vary by state. In some states, dentists may hire untrained individuals and teach them the tasks of the dental assistant. Other states require assistants to complete a formal training program. In some states, dental assistants may perform routine clinical treatments directly on the patient, such as the application of a topical anesthetic or fluoride treatment.

Accredited online dental assistant programs typically include hands-on laboratories, as well as supervised work in a dental clinic. In labs, students practice identifying and working with dental equipment and using dental materials. In one-year dental assistant programs, on-site work is usually limited to one semester. This may take place through a clinical internship at a dental office or through practicums on the school's campus. Supervised experience allows students to get a feel for working in a dental office, and it helps them develop their clinical communication skills.

The following courses are typical in a dental assistant certificate or associate diploma program:

  • Chair-side Assistance
  • Dental Assistant Clinical Practice
  • Dental Laboratory Fabrication
  • Dental Materials
  • Dental Office Administration
  • Dental Radiology
  • Oral and Dental Anatomy
  • Oral Pathology
  • Periodontics 

References

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