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Dental assistants will soon be able to move up in their careers.

New group strives to create brighter career future for dental assistants

Feb. 23, 2024
The career opportunities and respect dental assistants crave are getting closer, thanks to a new workgroup formed to enhance the future of the profession.
Meg Kaiser, Associate Editor

Most people who work in the dental industry are aware of the staffing shortage. Part of that shortage is due to dental assistants leaving the profession in droves during and after the pandemic, and they aren’t returning.

Even though they’re vital members of the dental team who perform important responsibilities, including infection control, dental assistants are often underpaid, underappreciated, and undertrained.

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Career growth and respect for dental assistants

To address this issue, a group of nearly 20 dental professionals—dental assistants, dentists, educators, dental hygienists, and regulators—from numerous dental organizations joined together to form the Dental Assisting Professional Model Workgroup, which held its first meeting February 26. 

The idea for the group began 18 months ago, with planning on the part of the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Katherine Landsberg, director of government relations for DANB, said the organization hosted a forum to discuss dental workforce issues and ensure that dental assistants “are prepared to support the needs of dental practices today and in the future.” Leaders from more than 20 oral health organizations attended the forum.

Two of the key outcomes from that forum were the need to improve workforce development and to develop a professional model for dental assistants. This led to forming the Dental Assisting Professional Model Workgroup.

Requirements, qualifications, and training for dental assistants varies a great deal from state to state, and the workgroup is addressing these challenges and the lack of qualified dental assistants in the pipeline. While some states have dental assisting levels that provide career progression, many do not. Increasing uniformity in the profession and across states will support dental assistant workforce recruitment, retention, and development while enhancing patient care. 

“One observation that forum participants made again and again was that, even though dental assisting is a skilled profession that impacts patient health and safety, there is no shared understanding across states of how to enter the dental assisting profession, how to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to perform duties competently and safely, and how to advance to higher levels of responsibility,” Landsberg said.

“It’s very difficult to recruit people without an understandable roadmap for advancement that also supports long-term retention, and it’s difficult to prepare candidates to succeed. Each state has been working on solutions, but the impact of their work is limited to their own state because the lack of a shared model for dental assisting makes it necessary to keep reinventing the wheel.”

Goals of the workgroup

Ultimately, the goals of the Dental Assisting Professional Model Workgroup for the dental assisting profession are to show the opportunities for potential career growth, and how to enter and progress with skills levels and competencies that have consistent standards across the country.  

They strive to create a framework with definitions of dental assisting levels, enforce the knowledge and skills required for those levels, promote model legislation and regulations that can serve as a template for state legislators and regulators, and provide guidance and resources for implementation that are informed by the dental profession. 

“We want dental assistants in every state to have meaningful, impactful, and rewarding long-term careers while providing excellent and safe care,” Landsberg stressed. “There has been much discussion recently about lack of appreciation of dental assistants being a factor in diminished recruitment and retention. Survey research has pointed to insufficient pay, negative workplace culture, and feeling overworked as the top reasons they leave the profession. We believe that this workgroup will lay a more solid foundation for dental assistants’ careers.

“We aim to have a draft framework that we can share with the dental community for feedback by the fall of this year,” Landsberg said. Visit DANB to stay up-to-date on the workgroup’s progress. Updates will also be shared through DANB social media, where comments are always welcome.