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Changes dental assistants want to see in their profession

March 17, 2021
Many dental assistants report career satisfaction and benefits, but others identify room for improvement in recognition and career growth.

Most dental assistants can point to all of the positive things surrounding their career paths. Many are grateful to have joined the profession and experience all it has to offer, especially those who seek opportunities for advancing in their roles. Through this journey, many dental assistants say they have met like-minded colleagues and appreciative patients.

In fact, during Dental Assistants Recognition Week (DARW)—held March 7-13, as designated by the American Dental Assistants Association—the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) and its affiliate, the DALE Foundation, heard from countless dental assistants who said just that. It’s not uncommon for DANB and the DALE Foundation to receive positive feedback about the profession from motivated and successful dental assistants all year round, not just during DARW.

On the flip side, dental assistants agree on some changes they’d like to see in the profession. They believe if these were implemented, it could take their career satisfaction to new heights and improve overall dental assistant retention in the field. Read on for some examples of desired changes.

Increased salaries and benefits

Many dental assistants say they work for an employer who strives to provide a good salary and benefits, such as paid vacation time and holidays, a retirement plan, health insurance, and paid sick leave. Plus, the employers whom dental assistants most appreciate provide support for continuing education, whether by allocating time, financial assistance, or both. This way assistants can grow their education, career, and salary—with new roles in the office, for example, or through taking on more duties as their states allow. Some dental assistants, especially those who have earned DANB certification, say they are satisfied with their salary and benefits. According to DANB’s most recent Dental Assistants Salary and Satisfaction Survey, DANB Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certificants earn a median salary of $20.76 an hour, $2 more per hour than non-certified dental assistants. Still, some dental assistants have commented that there is room for improvement when it comes to their salary and benefits.

“I’d like to see higher pay for dental assistants because it’s a demanding job if you’re good at it,” says Holly, CDA.

Trisha, CDA, agrees, especially since she, like many assistants, has been assigned more duties in the office lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic bringing challenges and changes to the profession. “We should receive higher pay to compensate for all of the different and additional things that we as assistants do in an office.”

More respect and acknowledgment

Dental assistants are extremely valuable dental team members who make so many positive contributions to the office. Yet, we consistently hear assistants say they don’t feel seen and recognized by their employers, coworkers, and patients. This may be because not everyone fully understands all that dental assistants do, not only in terms of patient contact, but to support everyone at work.

“My hope is that assistants will be treated as equal team members,” says Cheryl, CDA. “Each member of the dental team may have a different title and role, but we are all oral health-care providers. And assistants are an integral part of the team. Let’s hope this will become more the norm of thinking in the future.”

Linda, CDA, agrees. “I’d like to see more appreciation of how important we are to the office.”

Carolyn, COA, echoes, “We should be recognized more for all of the hard work we do. There are many roles we play as assistants that people never realize.”

Support for continuing education

Beyond the many tasks dental assistants complete day-to-day in their offices—infection control duties, chairside duties, and front desk responsibilities—many go above and beyond to pursue continuing education. For dental assistants, staying up to date with new information, procedures, and technology is a must since the profession is ever evolving.

In fact, we’ve heard from lots of dental assistants who have seen many technological advancements over the course of their careers, and say learning about new equipment and keeping up with the latest trends is exciting. “I love getting up to speed on advanced technology,” says Pam. “Anything we can use to improve patient care is great!”

Many dental assistants choose to complete CE on a variety of dental topics, including those options available online through the DALE Foundation, to take their careers to the next level. Many also strive to go further and earn DANB certification, as well as maintain certification through earning CE credits among other DANB renewal requirements.

Dental assistants acknowledge that completing CE is a time commitment that warrants recognition and support. Surveys have shown that although dental employers overwhelming report that CE is important for dental assistants and benefits the dental practice, less than 30% of employers pay for CE for their dental assistants.

Longtime dental assistant Judy, CDA, believes wholeheartedly in the power of education. “Education for dental office staff is essential since materials, techniques, and technology are ever-changing. There are many opportunities available for dental assistants to learn and advance if they have the desire to, and encouragement from others helps. Through exploring new skills, a dental assistant can offer more to the practice and patients and achieve professional advancement. Unfortunately, dental assistant salaries and employer support for CE are still unbelievably and unacceptably low, in my opinion.”

Additional opportunities to grow

Many dental assistants are grateful for their employer’s encouragement to evolve professionally and perform all of the duties their states allow. But others wish they had more opportunities to accrue knowledge and climb the career ladder.

“I’d like to be allowed to learn more and do more to benefit my patients,” shares Colleen, CDA.

“I’d like to be able to perform more expanded functions in the future,” agrees Jessica, CDA.

With more opportunities for advancement, plus more recognition and rewards, dental assistants believe the profession could be even better. Plus, when dental assisting is widely viewed as not just a job, but as a satisfying and forward-moving career, more people might be motivated to enter and stay in the profession.

“Many young people move on from our profession due to many factors, including low pay, limited duties, not feeling valued, and no pathway for growth,” observes Joyce, an assistant in Minnesota. “Perhaps more focus on these important areas would assist with the shortage of dental assistants in the country.”