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Become a Dental Assistant in Pennsylvania

To become a dental assistant in Pennsylvania, you can follow two different paths. You can choose to complete an academic program first and register with the Pennsylvania State Board of Dentistry as an Expanded Functions Dental Assistant.

Alternatively, you can begin working immediately as an entry-level dental assistant as you train on the job. Regardless of the path you take, this is a rewarding, in-demand healthcare career.

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What Can I Expect as a Dental Assistant?

A dental assistant is an essential team player in a dental office. They assist hygienists and dentists, helping to keep patients safe and the practice operating efficiently. Typical duties of a dental assistant include:

  • Taking calls and scheduling patients
  • Checking patients in for their appointments and getting them ready for an exam or procedure
  • Taking vital signs
  • Updating and filing patient records
  • Preparing exam rooms
  • Sterilizing equipment and instruments
  • Assisting dentists during procedures and exams
  • Communicating with patients about oral hygiene
  • Working with patients on billing and payments

Dental assistants certified in expanded functions and radiography can perform more duties on the job. State law prohibits dental assistants at any level from performing certain functions, such as placing and adjusting prosthetics or administering local or nitrous oxide anesthesia.

How to Become a Dental Assistant in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania State Board of Dentistry does not license entry-level dental assistants. There are no formal requirements for education or credentials.

To begin working as a dental assistant, you only need to find a licensed dentist to hire you and train you on the job.

Requirements for Performing Radiographic Procedures

Any dental assistant level can operate X-ray equipment and perform radiography procedures under the supervision of a dentist if qualified. To qualify, you must take and pass the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) Radiation Health and Safety Exam.

How to Become an Expanded Functions Dental Assistant

In addition to recognizing dental assistants with no credentials, Pennsylvania sets requirements for Expanded Functions Dental Assistants (EFDAs). Some of the expanded functions you can qualify to perform include:

  • Coronal polishing
  • Placing amalgam
  • Providing fluoride treatments
  • Applying cavity liners

To become an EFDA, you must meet specific requirements. There are three pathways you can take to qualify:

  1. Complete an EFDA program approved by the Board and that offers an associate degree.
  2. Complete a dental hygiene program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) and at least 75 hours of courses and practice in restorative functions.
  3. Complete a certificate program in expanded functions with at least 200 hours of clinical practice and coursework.

Along with any of these options, you must also pass a written exam approved by the state Board and apply for an EFDA certification.

What Are the Benefits of Going to a Dental Assistant School?

Pennsylvania allows you to start as a dental assistant right away, with no school. However, there are good reasons to start with an academic dental assistant program:

  • A dentist may give priority to job candidates with a certificate or degree.
  • It will make it easier for you to achieve national certification through DANB.
  • You will be able to perform more duties on the job right away.
  • A degree or certificate will prepare you to become a dental hygienist in the future.
  • You may need a credential to work in another state if you need to relocate.
  • You can earn more as an EFDA.

If you can’t go to school right now, starting as an entry-level dental assistant is a valid option. You can always work toward a degree to become an EFDA later.

Accredited Dental Assistant Programs and Dental Assistant Schools in Pennsylvania

Four schools in Pennsylvania have dental assistant programs accredited by CODA:

  • Harcum College, Bryn Mawr. Harcum offers a degree program in dental assisting with expanded functions.
  • Harrisburg Area Community College, Harrisburg. At Harrisburg, you can earn a certificate in dental assisting. You can also add on expanded functions courses.
  • Manor College, Jenkintown. You can earn an associate degree in Expanded Functions Dental Assisting here.
  • Westmoreland County Community College, Youngwood. Westmoreland offers a few options, including a diploma in dental assisting and a certificate, and an associate degree in EFDA.

If an on-campus program doesn’t work with your schedule or location, try the online dental assistant courses offered through Penn Foster.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Assistant in Pennsylvania?

If you decide not to go to school, you can begin working right away, although you can expect to spend some time training. A dental assistant certificate or diploma program should take about one year to complete, while an associate degree to become an Expanded Functions Dental Assistant will take two years on a full-time basis.

What Will I Learn in a Dental Assisting Program?

Because these dental assisting programs are accredited through CODA, they offer similar courses and subjects. Some of the classes you can expect to take in any dental assistant program include:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Oral anatomy
  • Dental materials
  • Dental radiology
  • Dental Assisting
  • Clinical dental assisting
  • Dental office practices
  • Preventative dentistry
  • Expanded functions

Accredited dental assisting programs also include clinical and lab work. This means you will be working in a hands-on, clinical setting to practice the necessary skills. You may do this work on campus or in an internship at a local practice.

Dental Assistant Certification Programs

CODA does not accredit dental assistant certification programs. However, if you want to become certified through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), you can do so with or without a dental assistant degree. You will need to pass the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam and may also need to pass an Infection Control (ICE) exam, depending on the state in which you plan to work.

You can prepare for the CDA exam at a DANB-approved dental assistant program or through a study course. The Dental Assisting National Board offers a variety of study aids and practice tests to help you prepare for the exam.

What Are the Career Opportunities for Dental Assistants?

Dental assistants work wherever dentists work. This means you can find many opportunities throughout the state. Most dental assistants work in private practices, but other employers include hospitals, physicians, clinics, nursing homes, university dental schools, and dental labs.

A degree or other credential in dental assisting gives you more job opportunities. For instance, you can specialize in orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, oral surgery, endodontics, or other areas of specialty. You may also be able to choose a role with more administrative duties or a patient-focused position, depending on the employer and the size of the practice.

Another interesting opportunity for dental assistants is the dental hygiene path. Dental hygienists work with patients to perform cleanings and other minor procedures. They must have a degree and be licensed.

Becoming a dental hygienist requires more education and licensing, but dental assisting is a great place to start. Many schools accept credits from dental assistant programs to help you earn a dental hygiene degree. Some also have bridge programs to make it easier to transition from assisting to dental hygiene.

What is the Career Outlook for Dental Assistants?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports impressive growth for dental assistants throughout the country. From 2020 to 2030, the agency projects 11% growth, which is much faster than average job growth. This is due to an aging population in need of healthcare but also the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which stalled dental practices for a period.

Pennsylvania also sees strong growth in dental assisting careers. According to Projections Central, the development will be 8.3% from 2018 through 2028. This breaks down to more than 1,400 available positions for dental assistants each year in the state. This is considered to be a growing, secure profession for the foreseeable future.

How Much Do Dental Assistants Earn?

The median annual salary for dental assistants across the U.S., according to the BLS, is $41,180. The median hourly rate is $19.80. These figures include both entry-level and experienced dental assistants, so there is potential to earn more. The BLS reports that the highest earners in the field make more than $58,000 per year. Those making the most money are usually working with or for the government.

Pennsylvania’s salaries for dental assistants are on the higher end of the national figures. The BLS reports that average wages here range from $40,990 to $44,690. You can earn more with credentials, certifications, expanded functions, and years of experience. Some employers also pay more, usually in larger offices and urban areas.

Jobs in Pennsylvania for Dental Assistants

With the proper education, it should not be difficult to find a dental assistant position in the state. You can find work wherever you find dental offices. Still, most opportunities are available in larger population centers: PhiladelphiaPittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, and Reading.

Dental assisting is an excellent career for anyone interested in healthcare without a four-year degree. You can begin this job immediately or take a year or two to get a credential that leads to more opportunities. Pennsylvania will continue to see growth and good wages in the industry. You can expect job security and a decent income.


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