The Changing Role of the Dental Assistant: Are We Ready?

May 1, 2007
In 1885, Dr. C. Edmund Kells hired the first “lady in attendance” for his dental office.

Cathy J. Roberts
ADAA President

In 1885, Dr. C. Edmund Kells hired the first “lady in attendance” for his dental office. Over the next 100 years, the dental assistant’s role was to assist the dentist chairside, clean, set up and maintain the operatory while answering the telephone and making appointments - all with a smile! Then came dental insurance, OSHA, infection control regulations, and practice management concepts that changed the way dentists practiced. The days of the “one assistant” office are gone. Today, the average dental office has a business assistant and office manager to handle the financial side of the practice, while the chairside assistant and patient coordinator handle the clinical side.

The dental assisting profession is changing rapidly and the opportunities are endless, if we are ready to accept a new paradigm. Many states have some type of expanded duties for dental assistants and many dental offices are hiring dental administrators to manage their practices. Last year, the American Dental Association completed The ADA Report of the Workforce Task Force which outlined ways that dental assistants could be utilized to increase access to care for all Americans. The ADA has proposed two new categories called an Oral Preventive Assistant (OPA) and the Community Dental Health Coordinator (CDHC). The ADA will be piloting the CDHC position in the future (

There are over 270,000 dental assistants in the current workforce, but the duties for the dental assistant vary from office to office and state to state. With all states having different dental practice acts and levels of education for assistants, it is difficult for a dental assistant to move from one state to another and know what is required. There is a need for a national standard of education and a standard credential that all states would recognize. The American Dental Assistants Association and the Dental Assisting National Board studied the core competencies that a dental assistant should meet and proposed a career ladder for dental assistants that would include the entry level assistant, the Dental Assistant, the Certified Dental Assistant, and the Expanded Functions Dental Assistant, with different levels of education required for each category. In 2005, the ADAA/DANB Alliance published a position paper on “A Uniform National Model for the Dental Assisting Profession” (

It is time for dental assistants to make a difference in their profession. We have a great opportunity to expand our profession in many areas. I urge you to learn new skills and attend continuing education to learn about new techniques and products. By expanding your knowledge base, you are a valuable asset to your employer and the practice. The ADAA provides many home study courses on advanced duties, such as placing rubber dams and fabricating temporary crowns ( ). The ADAA “Learning in the Round” seminars showcase new products, materials, and techniques with the opportunity for dental assistants to provide feedback on these materials. With many dental materials, proper manipulation and handling are very important to the success of the procedure. Dental assistants can contribute to the quality of their patients’ treatments by knowing the materials and procedures well.

I urge all dental assistants to learn what allowable duties can be delegated in their state and work with the ADAA and their state dental assistant association to bring the dental assisting profession to the attention of the state legislators and state dental boards. With dental assistants forming the largest portion of the dental workforce, using Expanded Functions Dental Assistants to help alleviate some access-to-care issues makes sense.

Recently, I had the privilege to attend a PennWell symposium on the oral-systemic connection called “The Scottsdale Project.” I represented dental assistants at this meeting featuring a panel of dentists, physicians, educators, and researchers discussing the link between oral health and overall physical health. This is another area where dental assistants will be a valuable part of the team, teaching patients about the importance of oral health and the effects of periodontal disease in relation to heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

We must be ready to take on new challenges and skills to advance the dental assisting profession. Are you a member of your professional organization, the ADAA? Are you a Certified Dental Assistant? Are you ready for the future role of the dental assistant? If not, join us, the American Dental Assistants Association, because the future is here.