The dental assisting profession has evolved over the past several decades, in a variety of ways. These changes have positioned dental assistants for many new, exciting opportunities to learn and advance in their careers.

In the past, dental assisting may have been perceived as “just a job,” with assistants playing more of a sideline role in the delivery of oral healthcare. Today, dental assistants are viewed as extremely valuable and involved members of the dental team. Dental assisting is an engaging career path now more than it ever has been before.

Recently, Dental Assistants Recognition Week (DARW), held March 7-13, 2021, brought much-deserved attention to the importance of the profession and the professionals in it. In this spirit, we reflect on some key changes in the profession that have allowed dental assistants to step up and shine in their important role.


Infection Control

Ahead of DARW, the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) asked DANB certificants about the biggest evolution they’ve seen during their careers — and many pointed to the changes in infection control. In the past, personal protective equipment (PPE) use was either absent or minimal. In fact, one of the major changes for dentistry over the past few decades was the adoption of federal infection control standards and guidelines. Today, many dental assistants make valuable infection control contributions in the dental office, with some even serving as the infection control coordinator.

Dental assistants agree that infection control protocol, awareness and education have evolved for the better in recent decades. Renee, CDA, who began assisting in 1988, remembers her grandmother telling her she wore little to no PPE as an assistant in 1958. Renee observes, “The difference in personal protective equipment use from the 1950s to now is startling!”

To further position dental assistants as leaders in infection control, the Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention (OSAP); DANB; and the DALE Foundation launched a comprehensive dental infection control education and certification initiative. One component of this initiative, the OSAP-DALE Foundation Dental Infection Prevention and Control Certificate™, allows everyone in dentistry, including assistants, the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in the critical area of dental infection prevention and control. More information about the OSAP-DANB-DALE Foundation collaboration is available at

Expanded Functions

Another key advancement in the profession is that many states have expanded the duties that dental assistants can perform. While requirements vary by state, dental assistants have been able, where allowed, to take on advanced roles — such as applying sealants, taking impressions, performing coronal polishing, applying topical anesthetic or applying topical fluoride. Learn more about expanded functions in dental assisting.

While each state has different requirements, earning DANB’s Certified Dental Assistant certification is often one of the steps to meet state requirements to be able to perform expanded functions.

This has been many DANB certificants’ experience. “There are always new advances in dentistry,” Katie, CDA, has observed. “For me, performing expanded functions is something I pursued after earning DANB’s CDA certification. I’ve found that the desire to perform expanded functions has become much more popular among assistants in the profession as years have gone on.”

Don, CDA, a dental assisting educator, recognizes that dental assistants in some states are able to work as an expanded functions dental assistant (EFDA). This expanded role benefits not only individual careers, but also the practice and profession overall. The same is true for earning and maintaining DANB certification, he adds. This is why Don encourages his students to become DANB certified, as well as to earn an expanded functions credential in their state, if possible. “This can take a person’s dental assisting career to the next level,” he believes.

Digital Technology

As in most professions, digital technology has taken center stage in dentistry. As a result, computers have made tasks like scheduling and maintaining patient charts more efficient. Plus, many offices now use digital radiography. Many dental assistants agree that the evolution of technology is a big benefit to both the practice and patient care.

“I see that treatment is becoming more accessible for people with the use of digital technology,” says Heather, CDPMA, who works as an office manager in an office treating orthodontic patients. “Whether we can scan someone’s mouth to avoid an impression or deliver digitally fabricated aligners for people who are not fans of fixed appliances, I think this technology is heading in the right direction.”

Renee agrees that since she began working in the late 1980s, the pace of the profession has continued to pick up, benefitting everyone, and especially patients. “From when I started in dental assisting, it’s like being on a treadmill that started at a walking speed and now is turned up to a running speed,” Renee reflects. “Everything is fast — the computers, the scanners, the mill — but the one thing that has stayed the same is the focus on caring for the patient in the chair.”

Many dental assistants feel excited about advancements in technology and confess that it’s energizing to learn about the latest tools and education surrounding it. “I love getting up to speed on the advanced technology,” says Pam. “Anything we can use to improve patient care is great!”

Technology has also helped make continuing education (CE) more accessible, with many learning options — such as those available through the DALE Foundation — now found online.

And this past year, technology has improved accessibility to DANB exams as well. As of Jan. 20, 2021, select DANB exams are available to take through secure online proctoring, to those who have a computer and testing space that meet the requirements. Learn more about online proctored exams.

Continuing Education

As technology and other changes have made their way to the dental office, and the workday has generally become more fast-paced, dental assistants have been challenged to stay up-to-date with an array of dental topics. Now, a key way to advance in the dental assisting profession is by pursuing education. Dental assistants who take the initiative to learn often are viewed as leaders in the dental office by their colleagues and patients.

Beyond all the personal and professional benefits that come with becoming more knowledgeable, earning CE credits also is required to maintain certification through DANB. For over 70 years, DANB has helped elevate dental assistants’ careers by enabling them to demonstrate their knowledge, their dedication to learning, and their commitment their teams, patients and careers.

All these advancements add up to a bright future for the profession, assistants agree. “Today, there are more dental assisting programs and more credentials that dental assistants can earn than there were back in the 1970s,” reflects Doreen, CDA. “Since the beginning of my career, I’ve always thought dental assisting has been very rewarding. It may be even more so now.”

What changes have you observed in dental assisting over the years?
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