Dental Assistant Skills Overview

Little Boy Having Oral Checkup

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Dental assistants are an important part of a dental practice and perform a variety of tasks, from assisting directly in patient care to office work. Dental assistants differ from dental hygienists in that the latter do much more unsupervised work with patients.

What Kind of Skills Do You Need to Be a Dental Assistant?

Some states require that dental assistants obtain certification, usually through two- or three-semester-long training programs. Other states do not require certification, and dental assistants may train on the job. Some dental assistants go on to receive further training, to become dental hygienists, or even dentists, but it is possible to spend a career as an assistant. Job prospects are generally strong, and pay can be good.

Top Skills Dental Assistants Need

Assistants sometimes perform polishing or explain proper dental hygiene to patients, but most of their patient contact occurs working beside the dentist during procedures that require an extra pair of hands. Dental assistants also prep examination areas, clean up after procedures, sterilize equipment, and order supplies.

Administrative Skills

Dental assistants may have a great deal of office work. Tasks include interviewing patients and conducting intake, scheduling appointments, creating and maintaining records, and ordering supplies. This aspect of the job is similar to other office staff positions and ​requires most of the same skills, such as attention to detail, excellent oral and written communication, and basic computer skills. Advanced IT skills can help, as can the ability to speak multiple languages. Unlike other office workers, dental assistants need at least a basic understanding of dental medicine to understand the content of documents and forms and familiarity with dental software such as Eaglesoft or Dentrix.

Technical Skills

Although dental assistants seldom work with patients unsupervised, they still must be knowledgeable about dental medicine, to be able to anticipate the sequence of tasks in complex dental procedures. Dental assistants also must be able to take X-rays, blood pressure readings, and dental impressions, prepare dental materials, maintain equipment, and disinfect rooms and tools. All of these tasks require attention to detail, the ability to follow strict protocols, critical thinking skills, and good judgment. All dental assistants must also be able to recognize the signs of a dental emergency and are legally required to have current CPR certification.

Physical Abilities

While being a dental assistant is not known as a physically demanding job, it does require the stamina to remain on task for hours at a time and the strength to help move disabled patients into and out of the examination chair. Excellent hand-eye coordination is required, which means not only good (or well-corrected) vision, but also excellent fine-motor control in both hands. A dental assistant may not be color-blind, because fine differences in color can be important clinical signs. Good (or well-corrected) hearing in at least one ear is also important, again because some clinical signs are auditory.

Interpersonal Skills

Dental assistants must maintain a professional appearance and demeanor at all times. They must work well on a team with the other members of the dental practice and must be sensitive to the needs of patients including the fact that many patients are terrified of dentists. Customer service skills are an important dimension of being a dental assistant. Honest and ethical behavior is critical, including the ability to maintain proper confidentiality.

More Dental Assistant Skills

A - C

  • Administering Fluoride
  • Anticipating Sequence of Dental Procedures
  • Applying Bleaching Agents
  • Applying Sealants
  • Attention to Detail
  • Basic Computer
  • Building Rapport
  • Collaborating
  • Complying with Protocols and Standards
  • Conducting Patients Intake
  • Conserving Dental Materials
  • CPR
  • Customer Service

D - I

  • Dentrix
  • Developing and Mounting Dental Radiographs
  • Disinfecting Rooms and Equipment
  • Documenting
  • Eaglesoft
  • Empathy
  • Ensuring Accuracy of Charts
  • Filing
  • Flexible
  • Foreign Language
  • Hand-Eye Coordination
  • Handling Equipment with Care
  • Instructing Patients 
  • Interpersonal
  • Interviewing Patients

L - P

  • Listening
  • Maintaining Confidentiality
  • Maintaining Equipment
  • Maintaining Infection Control Barriers
  • Manual Dexterity
  • Monitoring and Ordering Supplies
  • Motivating Patients
  • Multitasking
  • Organizational
  • Placing Temporary Crowns
  • Preparing Dental Materials According to Specifications
  • Prioritizing

R - V

  • Reassuring Nervous Patients
  • Recognizing Signs of Dental Emergency
  • Reliability
  • Scheduling Appointments
  • Setting Up and Breaking Down Operatory
  • Taking Dental Impressions
  • Taking Dental Radiographs
  • Taking Blood Pressure
  • Teamwork
  • Verbal

Dental Hygienist Skills List

While many conflate dental assistants with dental hygienists, the main difference is that a dental assistant helps with a number of tasks to make the Dentist's workday a bit easier, while the dental hygienist will most often have a lot of direct contact with the patients themselves. Dental hygienists clean teeth, check patients for signs of oral diseases and provide preventive dental care. Hygienist also educate patients on ways to improve and maintain good dental health. Below are some of the skills dental hygienists need.

A - C

  • Adaptable
  • Administering Local Anesthesia 
  • Administering Sealants
  • Advising Patients about the Impact of Nutrition on Dental Health 
  • Applying Fluoride Treatments
  • Basic Life Support for Healthcare Professionals
  • Charting 
  • Cheerful
  • Cleaning and Polishing Teeth
  • Coding Procedures for Dental Claims
  • Collaborating with Dental Co-Workers
  • Comfort Working with Patient Blood, Saliva, and Odors
  • Commitment to Continuing Education
  • Communicating Patient Information to the Dentist
  • Compassion
  • Complying with Government Safety Standards and Regulations
  • Composing Notes about Procedures and Patient Status
  • Conducting Preliminary Dental Assessments
  • Conversing Comfortably with Patients
  • Conveying the Benefits of Accepting Treatments
  • Customer Service

D - M

  • Demonstrating Appropriate Ways to Floss and Brush
  • Dependable
  • Detail Orientation
  • Eaglesoft
  • Educating Patients about Preventative Practices
  • Empathy
  • Establishing Rapport with Diverse Clientele
  • Finesse with Distressed Patients
  • Finger Dexterity
  • Following Instructions/Commands from Dentists
  • Handling Instruments
  • Maintaining Infection Controls
  • Maintaining Patient Confidentiality
  • Multitasking

N - R

  • Obtaining Patient Medical History
  • Organizational
  • Outgoing 
  • Patient Relations
  • Place Locally Applied Antimicrobials
  • Positive Attitude
  • Precision
  • Preparing Patients for Examination by the Dentist
  • Prioritizing
  • Processing X-Ray Films
  • Recommending Dental Products to Patients
  • Root Planing

S - Z

  • Scaling 
  • Scheduling
  • Screening for Oral Cancer
  • Sterilizing Dental Instruments
  • Stress Management
  • Subtlety Promoting Cosmetic Procedures
  • Supervising Dental Assistants and other Support Staff 
  • Taking Blood Pressure
  • Teamwork
  • Testing and Recommending New Dental Hygiene Products
  • Training Dental Assistants and other Support Staff 
  • Using Digital Radiography
  • Working Quickly

How to Use Skills Lists

The following list of skills is not exhaustive but should give you an idea of what employers expect from incoming dental assistants and hygienists. If your state does not require certification or specialized training, you can use the list to help organize your application materials and to help prepare for your interview, although you should also speak to people who work in dental offices to get a first-hand description of what the job entails.

Whether your state allows direct entry into the field or not, you can use this list to help determine whether a job as a dental assistant is a good match for you. Again, it is best to talk to someone with experience in the field before making a final decision.