Dental team careers

Want to become a dental hygienist, dental assistant, lab technician, or a community dental coordinator? Learn more here.

Dental hygienist

As a dental hygienist, you will play an essential role in helping patients maintain good oral health. Performing regular cleanings and offering helpful tips for effective home care are among the key duties in your job description.

What does a dental hygienist do?
  • Performs patient screening procedures, including x-rays
  • Teaches patients how to practice good oral hygiene
  • Applies preventive materials such as fluoride and sealants to the teeth
  • Counsels patients regarding good nutrition and its impact on oral health
  • Removes calculus and plaque (hard and soft deposits) from the teeth
Where do dental hygienists work?
  • Dental offices of general dentists and dental specialists
  • Public health agencies, hospitals and community health clinics
  • Public school systems, dental schools and dental hygiene education programs
  • Sales and research for dental equipment and products
What benefits does a dental hygiene career offer?

Personal satisfaction: One of the most enjoyable aspects of a career in dental hygiene is working with people. Personal fulfillment comes from providing a valuable health care service while establishing trusting relationships with patients.

Prestige: As a result of their education and clinical training in a highly skilled discipline, dental hygienists are respected as valued members of the oral health care team.

Variety: Dental hygienists use a variety of interpersonal and clinical skills to meet the oral health needs of many different patients each day. Hygienists have opportunities to help special population groups such as children, the elderly and the disabled. They may also provide oral health instruction in primary and secondary schools and other settings.

Creativity: Because dental hygienists interact with such diverse population groups, they must be creative in their approach to patient management and oral health education.

Flexibility: Full-time and part-time employment options and the availability of evening and weekend hours enable dental hygienists to balance their career and lifestyle needs. Hygienists also have opportunities to work in a wide variety of settings, including private dental practices, educational and community institutions, research teams and large group practices.

Security: Dental hygiene is projected to be one of the 30 fastest growing occupations in future years. Due to the success of preventive dentistry in reducing the incidence of oral disease, the expanding older population will retain their teeth longer, and will be even more aware of the importance of regular dental care. With the emphasis on preventive care, dentists will need to employ more dental hygienists than ever before to meet the increased demand for dental services.

Opportunities for non-traditional students: If you’ve been out of school for a while but are seeking a career change, dental hygiene may be an excellent choice for you. Online learning and flexible scheduling will benefit students with family responsibilities as well as those who are working while they learn.

How can I train to become a dental hygienist?

There are more than 300 accredited dental hygiene education programs in community colleges, technical colleges, dental schools and universities across the U.S. Most associate degree programs take at least two years to complete. Some universities offer four-year baccalaureate programs. Innovative training methods include distance learning and institution-based, didactic coursework combined with community experience.

You will receive hands-on clinical instruction in the form of supervised patient care experiences. Dental hygiene programs may also include courses in liberal arts (for example, English, speech, sociology and psychology); basic sciences (anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, immunology, chemistry, microbiology or pathology); and clinical sciences (dental hygiene, radiology and dental materials).

After completing your dental hygiene education, you may choose to seek additional training in areas such as education, business administration, basic sciences, marketing and public health.

When your coursework is complete, you can become a registered dental hygienist (RDH) by passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (a written test) and the authorized licensure exam in your state.

Where can I find more career resources?
To learn more about careers in dental hygiene, contact your own dentist, dental hygienist or the dental society in your area. Arrange to visit a nearby dental office to observe a dental hygienist at work. You also can contact an accredited dental hygiene program to meet with a counselor or schedule a visit to the school. For more information on accredited dental hygiene education programs, contact:

 

The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)

The American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA)

The American Dental Education Association (ADEA)

Dental assistant

As a dental assistant, you will handle a wide range of tasks such as taking x-rays and impressions and helping make patients comfortable before, during and after treatment.

What does a dental assistant do?

The duties of a dental assistant are among the most comprehensive and varied in the dental office. Although state regulations vary, responsibilities may include:

  • Assisting the dentist during a variety of treatment procedures
  • Taking and developing dental radiographs (x-rays)
  • Asking about the patient's medical history and taking blood pressure and pulse
  • Serving as an infection control officer, developing infection control protocol, and preparing and sterilizing instruments and equipment
  • Helping patients feel comfortable before, during and after dental treatment
  • Providing patients with oral care instructions following surgery and other procedures, such as the placement of a restoration (filling)
  • Teaching patients appropriate oral hygiene strategies to maintain oral health, including tooth brushing, flossing and nutritional counseling
  • Taking impressions of patients' teeth for study casts (models of teeth)
  • Performing office management tasks
  • Communicating with patients and suppliers, which may involve scheduling appointments, answering the telephone, billing and ordering supplies
Where do dental assistants work?
  • Solo dental practices with only one dentist
  • Group practices with two or more dentists
  • Specialty practices such as oral and maxillofacial surgery (removal of teeth and correction of facial deformities), orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics (straightening teeth with braces or other appliances), endodontics (root canal treatment), periodontics (treatment of gum problems), prosthodontics (replacement of lost teeth) and pediatric dentistry (treatment of children)
  • Public health dentistry, including settings such as schools and clinics which focus on the prevention of dental problems within entire communities
  • Hospital dental clinics, where they assist dentists in treating bedridden patients
  • Dental school clinics, assisting dental students as they learn to perform dental procedures
  • Insurance companies, where they may work in dental claims processing
What benefits does a dental assistant career offer?

Variety: Dental assisting is a challenging and rewarding career, demanding versatility and a willingness to assume responsibility for many different tasks.

Flexibility: Since dental assistants are in demand, career options include both full-time and part-time positions, giving you the freedom to arrange your schedule around family and lifestyle needs.

Excellent working conditions: Dental offices are interesting, pleasant, people-oriented environments.

Personal satisfaction: Dental assisting involves people contact, and with this comes the personal satisfaction of knowing you've really helped someone with a valuable health service.

How can I train to become a dental assistant?
  • Dental assistants receive their formal education through academic programs at community colleges, vocational schools, technical institutes, universities or dental schools.
  • Graduates of these programs usually receive certificates. Most academic dental assisting programs take nine to eleven months to complete.
  • Some schools offer accelerated training, part-time education programs or distance learning options.
  • The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is responsible for accrediting dental assisting programs. There are approximately 240 CODA-accredited programs in the United States.
  • Most dental assistants who choose to become nationally certified take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Becoming a CDA shows that you are trained and ready to assist dentists and other dental team members in providing quality care.
  • Dental assistants are eligible to take the CDA examination if they have completed a CODA-accredited program. Individuals who have trained on the job or have graduated from non-accredited programs are eligible to take the national certification examination after two years of full-time work experience as dental assistants.
  • Some states also recognize passage of components of the CDA examination, such as the Radiation Health and Safety examination, or the Infection Control examination, for licensing and regulatory purposes.
  • State regulations vary, and some states require or offer registration or licensure. For more information on the type of education, training or registration dental assistants must have in your state, contact your state board of dental examiners.
Where can I find more career resources?

Contact your dentist or your local dental society to learn more about careers in dental assisting. You may be able to visit a dental office to observe dental assistants at work. You also can contact an accredited dental assisting program and arrange to talk with a counselor or visit the school.

To learn more about dental assisting careers and educational programs, contact:

The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)

The American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA)

The Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB)

Dental laboratory technician

Dental lab technicians blend art and science to create custom dentures, crowns, veneers and orthodontic appliances that restore smiles — and confidence.

What does a dental lab technician do?

Dental laboratory technology is both a science and an art. Since each dental patient's needs are different, the duties of a dental laboratory technician are comprehensive and varied. Although dental technicians seldom work directly with patients, except under the direction of a licensed dentist, they are valuable members of the dental care team. They work directly with dentists by following detailed written instructions and using impressions (molds) of the patient's teeth or oral soft tissues to create:

  • Full dentures for patients who are missing all of their teeth
  • Removable partial dentures or fixed bridges for patients who are missing only one or a few teeth
  • Crowns, which are caps for teeth that are designed to restore their original size and shape
  • Veneers that enhance the appearance and function of teeth
  • Orthodontic appliances and splints to help straighten and protect teeth

Dental technicians work with a variety of materials including waxes, plastics, precious and non-precious alloys, stainless steel, a variety of porcelains, and composites or polymer glass combinations. Many technicians skillfully use sophisticated instruments and equipment. It is important for the technician to help create tooth replacements that are both attractive and functional.

Where do dental lab technicians work?
  • Most dental lab technicians work in commercial dental laboratories employing from two to 200 people.
  • The average laboratory employs about five to ten technicians who may provide a full range of dental prosthetic services or specialize in producing one particular type of prosthesis (for example, removable partial dentures, crown and bridge, etc.)
  • Opportunities are also available in private dental offices for technicians who like close one-on-one contact with a dentist.
  • Some lab technicians work in dental schools, hospitals and companies that manufacture dental prosthetic materials.
  • Dental laboratory technology education programs offer some teaching positions for experienced technicians.
What benefits does this career offer?

Opportunity: Thanks to constant advancements in technology and materials, there is growing demand for restorative and cosmetic dentistry, creating expanded opportunities for laboratory technicians.

Flexibility: Dental lab technology is a flexible career offering several opportunities for advancement. Experienced technicians can find well-paid positions in commercial laboratories based on their technical or communication skills, become department heads in larger laboratories with supervisory responsibilities, or even own their own laboratories. Dental technicians also may teach dental technology courses in educational programs and apply their knowledge to research, sales and marketing of prosthetic materials, instruments and equipment.

Independence: Technicians perform much of their work without close supervision. They often experience the satisfaction that results from taking an entire project from start to finish.

Creativity: Dental lab technology requires the skill and touch of an artist. Technicians need to be creative when they make prostheses.

Security: The services performed by dental technicians will always be needed. With the population growing older, there will be a continued demand for prostheses which improve these individuals' nutrition, appearance and ability to speak clearly.

Personal fulfillment: Dental lab technicians experience the satisfaction of knowing they help provide a valued health care service that improves patients’ oral health and self-image. Technicians play a significant role in delivering dental health care and take pride in producing a hand-crafted product.

How can I train to become a dental lab technician?
  • Dental lab technicians may complete a two-year program at a community college, vocational school, technical college, university or dental school. Graduates of these programs receive either an associate degree or a certificate. Some programs offer a four-year baccalaureate program in dental technology.
  • Most candidates need a high school diploma or equivalent to apply to an accredited dental lab technology program.
  • The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is responsible for accrediting dental laboratory technology programs. There are 14 commission-accredited dental laboratory technology programs in the United States.
  • Dental lab technicians can become certified by passing an examination that evaluates their technical skills and knowledge. The examination is administered by the National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology.
  • A dental technician who passes the certification examination becomes a Certified Dental Technician (CDT). CDTs specialize in one or more of six areas: implants, complete dentures, removable partial dentures, crown and bridge, ceramics or orthodontics.
Where can I find more career resources?
To learn more about dental lab careers, talk with your own dentist or arrange to visit a local dental laboratory. Your local dental society or the local component of the National Association of Dental Laboratories will offer resources as well. You can contact an accredited program to talk with a counselor or visit the school. For additional details, visit:

The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)

The National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology (NBC)

The National Association of Dental Laboratories (NADL)

Community Dental Health Coordinator (CDHC)

In 2006, the ADA launched the community dental health coordinator program to provide support and services for people who may have difficulty gaining access to quality dental care. Learn more about this emerging role and what it takes to become a CDHC.

What does a CDHC do?

CDHCs are trained community health workers with dental skills who work as members of the dental team. As a CDHC, your goal will be to link patients with dental care providers who are ready to serve them. You will be a bridge between underutilized resources and patients who can benefit.

CDHCs focus on case management, navigation and oral health education and promotion. They may conduct motivational interviews to reveal issues or concerns that might keep patients from seeking oral care. Community mapping — which involves helping people identify oral health resources near them — may also be part of the role.

Where do CDHCs work?

You can find trained CDHCs working in:

  • Large group practices
  • Dental clinics
  • Schools
  • Faith-based settings
  • Head Start programs serving school-aged children and their families

Several dental practices may also join together to hire a CDHC that works with all participating locations.

What benefits does this career offer?

Personal satisfaction: The CDHC role is helping millions of people who lack access to adequate dental care find the services they need. As a CDHC, you can play a significant role in improving the oral health of hundreds, even thousands of people near you.

Career security: As the dental profession works to end the disparities that block so many people from getting the oral care they need, the demand for CDHCs will expand. Career opportunities will be strong in the years ahead.

How can I train to become a CDHC?

CDHCs often come from the same communities where they grew up or attended school. This ensures they have a good grasp of cultural and language barriers that might affect patient habits, concerns and needs. CDHCs are trained to:

  • Work in clinics, schools, private practices and public health settings in accordance with state laws and regulations
  • Collect information to help dentists provide quality care
  • Help patients set goals and learn skills to improve their oral health
  • Coordinate care in accordance with a dentist’s instructions
  • Help patients navigate the health care system
  • Provide specific clinical services such as fluoride treatments, sealants and dental x-rays

There are CDHC training programs across the country, and graduates are now working in many states. In many cases, the curriculum is integrated with dental assisting and dental hygiene programs.

Where can I find more career resources?

To learn more about the CDHC role and how you can get started, contact your state or local dental society. Find an overview of CDHC careers and resources.