Oral health care is a specialized industry that includes a variety of opportunities, such as becoming a dental assistant. How To Become a Dental Assistant in California in 7 Steps. Learning about the process of pursuing this job in California may help you decide if it’s a good career path for you.
In this article, we discuss how to become a dental assistant in California and answer some frequently asked questions about this career.
What does a dental assistant do?
A dental assistant is an oral health care provider who helps dentists complete a variety of tasks. Exact responsibilities may vary based on their employer and qualification level, but common duties for dental assistants include:
- Organizing and preparing the tools and equipment dentists use
- Completing administrative tasks, such as checking in patients
- Speaking with patients to obtain their medical history
- Talking to patients about proper oral hygiene care
- Assisting dentists during procedures, such as fillings or tooth extractions
- Helping with taking X-rays or scans of teeth
- Scheduling patients for future visits
How to become a dental assistant in California
Follow these steps to become a registered dental assistant in California:
1. Learn about the types of dental assistants
The Dental Board of California recognizes different distinctions of dental assistants. It’s important to learn about the different types of these providers because the option that you choose to pursue affects your education and certification requirements. The four types are:
- Unlicensed dental assistant: An unlicensed dental assistant (UDA) can perform basic supportive dental procedures if they’re under the direct supervision of a licensed dentist.
- Registered dental assistant: A registered dental assistant (RDA) also performs supportive dental procedures, but they may be under the direct or general supervision of a licensed dentist, meaning the dentist may not be physically in the room with them.
- Registered dental assistant in extended functions: A registered dental assistant (RDAEF) can perform more advanced supportive dental procedures under the direct supervision of a licensed dentist as well as basic supportive procedures under general or direct supervision.
- RDAEF with additional training: A RDAEF with additional training performs the same tasks as an RDAEF and can assist with radiography tasks under general supervision and certain restoration tasks under direct or general supervision.
The Dental Board of California also offers two permit options you can earn aside from a license. One option is the orthodontic assistant permit (OA), which allows you to perform supportive orthodontic tasks under direct supervision. Another option is the dental sedation assistant permit (DSA), which allows you to complete supportive sedation tasks under direct supervision.
2. Pursue training
Becoming an RDA involves completing formal training or education. One option is to complete at least 15 months of work as a UDA under the supervision of a licensed dentist. While on-the-job training and practical work experience are effective ways to learn, it may be beneficial to choose a certificate program.
The Dental Board of California accepts two options for education programs. Many of these programs incorporate topics that are important for completing future board-required courses. One option is to complete an RDA program with approval from the Dental Board of California. You’re also able to complete a four-month program with approval from the California Department of Education and work for at least 11 months as a UDA under the direct supervision of a licensed dentist.
3. Complete the required courses
After finishing the experience or education requirements, begin the courses that the Dental Board of California requires for an RDA license. This includes completing board-approved courses in radiation safety and coronal policy before you submit your application and board-approved courses about the Dental Practice Act and infection control within five years of submitting your application. The Dental Board of California also requires you to complete a basic life support course taught by an instructor with approval from the American Heart Association (AHA) or the American Red Cross (Red Cross).
4. Apply for a license
The Dental Board of California allows you to complete your application once you complete the required courses, and be sure to choose the correct application based on your education or practical experience. Completing the application involves providing your personal information and proof of your course completion. There may also be a fee to pay with your application.
5. Pass the exam
Submitting your application allows you to schedule your exam. The Dental Board of California requires qualified RDA applicants to complete the Registered Dental Assistant General and Law and Ethics written exam after they receive their acceptance. The computer-based test includes 150 multiple-choice questions, and you have three hours to finish the exam. Taking the exam requires visiting a testing center throughout the state.
6. Submit your fingerprints
Agreeing to a background check is an important aspect of becoming an RDA. Access the Live Scan form from the Dental Board of California, then visit a Live Scan facility for them to collect your fingerprints electronically. While you may pay a fee at Live Scan, using this service prevents you from paying additional fees to submit your fingerprints to the Dental Board of California.
Live Scan submits your fingerprints to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to provide you with the necessary clearance. They typically send their results to the Dental Board of California within seven days.
7. Maintain your license
RDA licenses remain active for approximately two years, and they expire on your birthday. This means your initial license may not be active for two calendar years. Renewing your license the first time to keep it active includes paying a fee, submitting fingerprints and participating in a survey. All future renewals include the same tasks as well as completing at least 25 continuing education units.
Salary and career outlook for dental assistants in California
While exact salaries may vary, the average annual salary for a dental assistant in California is $76,437 per year. Factors that may affect earnings include employer, education, experience, qualifications and geographic location. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.
Some of the cities in California that offer the best earning potential for dental assistants are as follows:
- Bakersfield: $64,853 per year
- Fontana: $68,094 per year
- Sacramento: $75,905 per year
- Huntington Beach: $76,345 per year
- San Diego: $77,206 per year
- Chula Vista: $78,234 per year
- Encinitas: $81,749 per year
- San Jose: $85,725 per year
- San Francisco: $88,504 per year
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t have career outlook information for dental assistants in California specifically. However, it expects the employment of dental assistants to increase 8% nationwide from 2021 to 2031. This growth rate is faster than the average for all occupations, and it includes an estimated 56,400 new jobs for dental assistants each year. The BLS credits the increased demand to the growing need for oral and general health care, leading to the creation of more dental practices and a need for dental assistants to complete basic tasks.
According to the BLS, California currently employs an estimated 48,090 dental assistants. The state leads the rest of the country as the top employer of these providers. It specifically notes the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim and San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metropolitan areas as two leading areas for employing dental assistants with 15,740 and 5,890 assistants, respectively. This suggests the state has a good number of opportunities available for people interested in this career path.
Skills necessary for becoming a dental assistant
Working as a dental assistant requires hard and soft skills. Hard skills include the technical abilities and chairside assisting skills necessary to help dentists, and soft skills relate to personal qualities and habits that you show through your actions. Some important skills for dental assistants include:
- Knowledge of dental health and oral hygiene
- Knowledge of dental tools and equipment
- Attention to detail
- Active listening
- Interpersonal skills
Is certification necessary to become a dental assistant in California?
It may be possible to work as a dental assistant in California without a certification. However, earning certification may provide you with more career opportunities and help you develop the technical skills essential for this career. If you choose not to pursue certification, the Dental Board of California requires all dental assistants to complete the following courses:
- A basic life support course led by an instructor with approval from the AHA or the Red Cross
- A board-approved course about infection control
- A board-approved course about the California Dental Practice Act
What’s the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist?
Dental hygienists and dental assistants both support dentists and help with treating patients. However, dental hygienists typically have a more active role in patient care. They complete dental cleanings and patient screenings independently, and they advise dentists on what they see. Dental assistants, however, may set up the area for a patient or complete administrative tasks.
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