What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Oral care is as essential to most Americans as medical care. However, services are often scarce because there are too few oral care professionals to meet the growing demand. If you’re passionate about smiles, why not become part of this growing industry as a dental assistant? Few careers are as personally and professionally rewarding, and Florida National University offers a Dental Assistant program. So, what does a dental assistant do?

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Dental assistants work with licensed oral care professionals, managing clinical and administrative duties, from scheduling to chairside assisting. You’ll be part of a supportive team dedicated to dental health.

The work includes: 

Administrative Duties

Dental assistants handle administrative tasks, such as scheduling appointments, processing insurance claims, managing referrals, and ordering supplies — anything that helps the practice run smoothly. Team players contribute to a well-organized and productive work environment.

Patient Screening

Patients may have preexisting medical conditions that require special precautions before procedures. For example, people with a recent joint replacement should take prophylactic antibiotics before most treatments. Dental assistants screen patients for health concerns by exploring their medical history, reviewing allergies, and obtaining vital signs. Safety is always the top priority.

Preparing Treatment Rooms

Preparing treatment rooms in advance improves efficiency while minimizing wait times. Dental assistants set up the necessary equipment, ensuring that the right instruments, materials, and supplies are readily available for the dentist.

Taking X-Rays

Dental assistants with expanded function training can take X-rays in most states. You’ll prepare the patient, position the X-ray machine, and snap images for the dentist to review. Minimizing radiation exposure is an integral part of the job. You’ll use leaded devices such as aprons, gloves, and thyroid collars to protect yourself and patients from larger-than-necessary doses. Exposure is cumulative.

Chairside Assistance

Dental assistants participate in four-handed dentistry, where the dentist and assistant work together to manage treatments. You’ll pass instruments, manage water and suction, prepare treatment materials, and more, allowing the dentist to focus on patients with fewer interruptions.

Performing Treatments

Dental assistants perform low-risk treatments under the supervision of a licensed professional. Examples include coronal polishing, applying sealants, and making mouth or tooth impressions.

Infection Control

Oral care environments can harbor dangerous pathogens. Dental assistants implement infection control measures to keep patients safe from unseen microbes. This process includes sanitizing treatment rooms between visits and sterilizing instruments to ensure a hygienic environment.

Laboratory Procedures

Some dental assistants help in the lab with simple tasks such as denture alignments, polishing restorations, and creating custom whitening trays. In an orthodontic practice, they may also clean and adjust oral appliances.


Continuity of care requires precise and accurate documentation. During procedures, dental assistants chart treatment details, including the teeth involved, the materials used, and the proposed timeline for follow-up treatments.

Patient Education

Dental assistants are an essential source of information for patients, educating them on timely topics, from oral hygiene and preventive care to restorative procedures and post-operative self-care whether counseling patients with toothaches or helping kids learn to floss, sharing your knowledge about oral health will be among your most impactful responsibilities.

Where Do Dental Assistants Work? 

Most dental assistants work in private dental practices. As the industry grows, however, they’re popping up in unconventional places. Opportunities are expanding in specialty clinics, hospitals, and even schools.

How Do You Become a Dental Assistant?

Training requirements vary by state. And they change often, so it’s essential to check with state regulators for details.

But in general, becoming a dental assistant is as easy as completing a vocational school program. All you need to apply is the willingness to learn and a high school diploma or equivalency certificate.

What Do You Learn in a Dental Assisting Program?

Dental assisting programs are job-focused, meaning they cover the skills you’ll need to succeed in any setting through a blend of classroom theory and practical, hands-on experience.

Courses include:

Introduction to Dental Assisting

This introductory course provides a general overview of the oral care profession and the role of dental assistants.

Topics include:

  • The history and future of dentistry
  • Members of the oral care team and their functions
  • Types of dentistry, such as orthodontics, endodontist, prosthodontics, and oral surgery
  • Office safety — how to maintain a safe working environment
  • Legal and regulatory considerations, including patient privacy
  • Career pathways — what you can do with a dental assisting diploma or degree and how to advance your career

Dental Anatomy

Dental anatomy is the foundation of advanced studies.

You’ll examine:

  • Dental terminology — tooth types and classifications, such as incisors, canines, and molars
  • Tooth numbering systems — numerical tooth identification systems, such as Universal, Palmer, and FDI
  • Tooth eruption and development — the sequence of eruption for primary and permanent teeth
  • Tooth surfaces, such as occlusal, buccal, mesial, and distal, and where to find them
  • Tooth morphology — internal and external tooth anatomy, including the crown, root, pulp, and dentin
  • Oral cavity structures — a look at the periodontium, the supporting structures of the teeth, including the gingiva, periodontal ligament, cementum, and alveolar bone
  • Occlusion — how the upper and lower teeth come together
  • Variations in tooth anatomy — normal and abnormal variations in tooth structure plus age-related wear patterns

Dental Materials

Handling restoration materials is a critical component of a dental assistant’s job. This course covers the various compounds used in dentistry, including their properties and applications.

Students discuss:

  • Material classifications — the grouping of materials by function as therapeutic, preventive, prosthetic, and auxiliary materials
  • Material properties — the physical and chemical characteristics of dental materials, such as hardness, elasticity, and thermal conductivity
  • Impression materials
  • Restorative materials, including amalgam, ceramic, and resin
  • Color-matching — shade selection for a natural look
  • Cement and adhesives — materials used for bonding restorative materials to tooth structures
  • Material handling and safety — hazards and precautions associated with specific materials

Diet, Nutrition, and Oral Hygiene

Dietary choices influence oral health. As educators, dental assistants must understand how nutrition impacts preventive care.

This course covers:

  • Oral anatomy and physiology — how the structure and function of the oral cavity contribute to human nutritional
  • Effects of diet on oral health — the types of foods and beverages that harm or protect teeth
  • Dietary nutrients — the role of critical nutrients, such as calcium and vitamins D and C, in a tooth-friendly diet
  • Eating disorders — the oral complications of eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, and how to support patients with these conditions
  • Sugar — sweets as a cause of cavities and sugar-reduction strategies
  • Acidic foods — how acids damage tooth enamel
  • Hydration — the importance of fluid and its impact on saliva production and oral health
  • Nutrition counseling — practical advice for a healthy diet

Dental X-Ray

Radiology is a complex topic. But this course condenses it into practical information that helps dental assistants take high-quality images.

Students study:

  • Radiation physics — the nature, production, and behavior of X-rays
  • Radiation tracking — the units of measure used to determine radiation exposure, such as milliampere-seconds (mAs) and kilovoltage (kV)
  • Radiographic anatomy — normal and abnormal dental conditions visible on X-rays
  • Radiation safety — the principles of radiation safety and protection measures for patients and dental assistants
  • Radiology equipment — the operation and maintenance of dental X-ray systems
  • Intraoral radiography techniques — capturing intraoral X-rays, including periapical, bitewing, and occlusal views
  • Extraoral radiography techniques — extraoral X-ray options, such as cephalometric and panoramic views
  • Film processing — conventional film processing techniques, including darkroom procedures
  • Digital radiography — digital X-ray systems and image processing
  • Image quality— assessing the clarity, contrast, and density of X-ray images
  • X-ray interpretation — basic interpretation of dental X-rays for common conditions

Front Office Procedures

Administrative tasks are part of every dental visit.

Students learn about:

  • Appointment scheduling — coordinating with clinical staff to manage appointments efficiently
  • Patient registration — registering new patients and obtaining consent forms
  • Dental insurance — types of dental plans and how to verify coverage
  • Billing and coding — preparing and submitting insurance claims
  • Recordkeeping — maintaining accurate and organized patient records
  • HIPAA — Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations related to patient privacy
  • Customer service and professionalism — customer service skills and making a good impression

Dental Office Emergencies

Crises happen in every healthcare environment. But after this course, you’ll be prepared to handle any emergency.

Topics include:

  • Emergency preparedness — the role of dental assistants in emergency action plans
  • Emergency equipment, including AEDs, oxygen, first aid supplies, and more
  • Oral care emergencies — recognizing conditions requiring immediate intervention
  • Medical complications — handling seizures, asthma attacks, choking, anesthetic reactions, and more
  • Communication and coordination — working with team members and emergency medical services to achieve the best outcomes

Preclinical Dental Assisting Procedures

“Preclinical procedures” is an umbrella term for the processes and procedures students must be familiar with as they begin to practice their clinical skills. This course familiarizes you with the office environment, routine, and expectations.

Examples include:

  • Taking health histories
  • Organizing workstations
  • Instrument selection
  • Using essential restorative equipment
  • Operating water, air, and suction devices
  • Basic operative skills
  • Infection control procedures

Expanded Functions for Dental Assistant I and II

Expanded functions are responsibilities beyond what the average dental assistant does. Course material covered depends on the length and scope of your program. Learning is hands-on.

The primary topics are:

  • Advanced chairside assistance
  • Taking X-rays
  • Coronal polishing — polishing techniques used to remove stains and plaque
  • Fluoride application
  • Sealant placement — applying sealants to occlusal surfaces to prevent decay
  • Crown and bridge fabrication
  • Periodontal dressing placement
  • Suture removal

Advanced concepts may include:

  • Endodontic procedures
  • Advanced radiography
  • Orthodontic procedures
  • Partials, dentures, and implants
  • Anesthetic administration

Final Thoughts

Dental assistants play a critical role in the delivery of oral care. But beyond the technical aspects of dentistry, they have the power to guide and inspire others to improve their dental health. More than a job, it’s a mission.

Dental Assistant Program

This Dental Assistant program aims to prepare students for entry-level employment as dental assistants and dental auxiliaries. Graduates of this program may apply to take the Certified Dental Assistant Examination given by the Dental Assisting National Board. Graduates are eligible for employment as dental assistants with expanded functions and radiography skills. The university awards a certificate upon completion of the program.

If you are interested in healthcare programs, let Florida National University answer any questions. Contact us today to learn more about our dental assistant programs.