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COVID-19 contributing to already short supply of dental assistants. How to stop the departure?

June 30, 2020
The dental assisting profession is seeing an exodus as dental offices reopen. Tija Hunter, CDA, shares what assistants are saying about their departures and what might encourage them to stay in the profession.

Once again, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has declared dental assisting one of the fastest growing professions.1 In cities across the nation, doctors are begging for quality dental assistants to join their practices. A good dental assistant can help a practice thrive, so the need for qualified assistants is a must in today’s practices.

With about 346,000 dental assistants,1 and around 155,000 dentists2 and 220,000 hygienists,3 dental assistants make up the greatest number of oral health-care workers. Several years ago, a single dentist often employed one assistant. In today’s growing practices, there can be two to three dental assistants for every one doctor.

Large practices employ multiple assistants and they can hold such positions as float assistants or sterilization techs. The skills of dental assistants are valuable for assisting with CAD/CAM, whitening, and many other procedures (where the law provides) that can help dentists produce more while leaving patients in the hands of a qualified oral health-care worker. There is no doubt that dental assistants contribute to the overall practice success.

What do assistants have to say?

There was a shortage of dental assistants even before to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now the shortage is worse. There are several reasons for that. I’m part of many online dental assisting communities, and I’m following what many of you have to say in online and social forums. I will summarize some of what you all have to say here.

After the shutdown, many dental assistants are not returning to work for a multitude of reasons, but the biggest contributor is associated with COVID-19.

Communication is a huge factor. Some offices had little or no contact between team members during the shutdown and assistants felt left out of the loop and didn’t know what they’d be returning to when they went back to work. Many of them have turned to social media for answers and support. While the interaction with peers is good, social media can also promote fear and contain misinformation. So, be careful!

Not knowing whether there would be proper personal protective equipment is another concern. The new PPE is daunting to say the least, with layers of protection and a mask that makes it hard to breath. In many cases team members are receiving few to no breaks throughout the workday. Many are exhausted and stressed. All of this is contributing to dental assistants’ hesitation to return to work.

Assistants are choosing to leave the profession and sadly, they’re not looking back. Our profession is full of quality dental assistants who have 30 and 40-plus years of experience, and many of them are using this uncertain time to go ahead and retire, which means we’re losing very qualified members of the profession. Practices that lose their assistants now will most likely have a hard time filling the positions. 

Now what?

Assistants have ideas regarding what can be done to encourage them to stay with the profession. Dentists must take action with their assistants now in order to retain them on their teams. Keep them informed. Talk to them about their fears and concerns and then listen to what they have to say. Know that they need to take breaks throughout the workday from all of the extra layers of PPE and the stress of a new schedule.

Infection control, one of the most important assignments given to assistants every day, should be addressed regularly. Your assistants need to have the most up-to-date infection control knowledge to keep patients and teams safe. Patients want to make the right choice when it comes to where they go for their oral health, so make sure they know that your team is on board with current infection control training.

Pay isn’t always a reason for assistants to stay with a practice, but good benefits are often very much appreciated. Last but certainly not least, always let your assistants know they’re a valuable part of the practice success. We love to feel appreciated!

Quality dental assistants who are educated, are paid what they’re worth, who have open communication with their bosses and teams, and who know they’re appreciated will do more for a practice’s success than any amount of marketing could ever do. Let’s all encourage these valuable team members to stay with the profession!


1. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Dental assistants. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Last modified April 10, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/OOH/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm

2. Workforce. Health Policy Institute. American Dental Association. https://www.ada.org/en/science-research/health-policy-institute/dental-statistics/workforce

3. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Dental hygienists. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Last modified April 10, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/OOH/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm

Tija Hunter, CDA, EFDA, CDIA, CDSO, CDSH, MADAA, is a member and current vice president of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), where she holds the honor of Master. Tija is the editor of Dental Assisting Digest and contributes to Dental Economics magazine. She is the director of the Dental Careers Institute, a dental assisting and dental continuing education program, and the author of seven continuing education study courses.

About the Author

Tija Hunter, CDA, EFDA

Tija Hunter, CDA, CDIA, CDIPC, CDSH, CDSO, EFDA, MADAA, is a member and former vice president of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), where she holds the honor of Master. She is the director of the Dental Careers Institute, a dental assisting and dental continuing education program, and the author of seven continuing education study courses. She is an international speaker and a certified trainer in nitrous oxide in several states. She can be reached at [email protected].

Updated January 12, 2024