It’s no secret that dental assistants work hard to support the dental team and help treat patients. Now most agree they’re working harder than ever before in the dental office as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How do we know this? In October 2020, the Dental Assisting National Board surveyed 772 dental assistants and dental practice managers about changes they’ve experienced at work due to the pandemic. Approximately 65% of responding dental assistants agreed that over the past six months, they’ve been asked to perform new and additional duties at work.

“I am nonstop all day,” one dental assistant who responded to the survey tells us. Another mentions working long-hour days with no breaks.

These survey responses point to a general sentiment felt by many dental assistants. “COVID-19 has caused an already disproportionately demanding career as a dental assistant to become even more demanding,” one survey respondent states.

Below, we take a closer look at some of the extra duties dental assistants report taking on lately in the dental office.


Screening Patients for COVID

One of the new duties dental assistants report being responsible for is screening patients for COVID-19. Screening protocols include calling patients before their appointments to determine whether they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, as well as assessing all patients and office visitors upon their arrival with questionnaires and temperature checks.

“Now, I perform front-office and office-coordinator duties, plus assist, plus train all new hires, plus conduct COVID screening calls,” says a dental assistant survey respondent.

Cassey C. understands the importance of such protocols. “In my office, we as assistants have taken on patient check-in, as well as COVID-19 screenings,” she says.


Implementing Social-Distancing Measures

Dental assistants also help ensure that social-distancing measures are followed throughout the dental office. Dental practices have installed glass or plastic barriers in the reception area, moved waiting-room chairs 6 feet apart, removed reception-area items like toys or magazines, and minimized overlapping dental appointments and the number of people in the waiting room. Many dental assistants are instrumental in documenting these steps and more, survey responses indicate.

“There are more cleaning protocols, more instructions for patients to follow, and maintaining social distancing,” one dental assistant survey respondent says.

“I’m in charge of all the new employee protocols for preventing COVID exposure,” adds another dental assistant.


Performing Additional Infection Control Duties

Not only are dental assistants mindful of social distancing, but infection control is a top priority for them as well — even more so than usual. In addition to following already-in-place infection-control protocols, dental assistants are performing extra cleaning and disinfection duties, the survey shows.

Beyond typical clinical sterilization duties, dental assistants now disinfect shared surfaces, including those in the restrooms, waiting rooms and staff locker rooms, to help prevent COVID-19 exposure.

“There’s extra cleaning throughout the office of items patients may have touched, such as doorknobs, pens, and other office items,” acknowledges a dental assistant survey respondent. “I clean the office every day,” another adds, with another saying they also take out the trash every night.


Stepping into Other Roles in the Office

We’ve also heard that dental assistants are filling other dental office roles as needed. For example, “I’m also helping more at the front desk with checking in patients and managing increased call volume,” a dental assistant survey respondent tells us.

Others are taking over for former co-workers not currently working in the dental office. “An assistant quit when called back to work because she was scared,” says one dental assistant.

Here’s how another assistant describes that being short-staffed affects their workload: “We have an assistant who refuses to do patient care, so I’ve had to take on all her duties plus my own.”

While reduced staff sizes can be challenging and frustrating, for some assistants, the change isn’t all bad. Newly opened positions can provide opportunities to climb the career ladder, to learn something new, and to become a leader at work. As one dental assistant respondent notes, “Our lead assistant quit, and I was promoted.”


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