“There is a large demand for Level II dental assistants on PEI and Canada-wide,” says Wanda MacInnis, Learning Manager, Dental Assisting program, Holland College. “I get calls every week from dentists across the Maritimes looking for Level II dental assistants. There are currently not enough graduates to meet the demand of the industry.”
The Canadian Dental Assistant Association estimates there are about 26,000 to 29,000 dental assistants in Canada. Of the 20,000 dental assistants registered with a provincial dental assisting association, approximately 74 percent are certified/licensed as a Level II dental assistant, 99 percent are female, and the average age is 38 years old. About 150 dental assistants currently work in the dental assisting field on PEI.
Duties on the job
Dental assistants (DAs) are dental health professionals who work closely with and under the supervision of a dentist. They perform tasks before and after the dentist meets with the patient, and assist the dentist during dental procedures.
“Dentists depend on the dental assistant,” says Wanda. “The DA usually arrives at the office before the dentist, sets up the clinic, looks at the day’s schedule, sets up trays of instruments for each procedure, and determines what materials need to be ordered. It is a lot of multitasking, and time management is very important. They also have to be very familiar with the procedure at hand, because a simple procedure can turn complicated very quickly.”
What does it take to be a dental assistant?
Along with the academic credentials, good communications skills and strong organizational skills are also important. “You have to enjoy working with the public, and you must have confidence in your abilities.
“Dentists are very busy, and patients usually share their anxiety with the dental assistant. Experienced DAs learn to read patients’ body language and give them the care they need.
“Dentistry is changing quickly, with many new cosmetic procedures and technology. DAs must be willing to continue to train to learn about new innovations and upcoming technology.
“It is very rewarding to work with patients and see the change in their smile and how they feel about themselves,” says Wanda. “Dental care is also an important factor in a patient’s overall health.”
Employment opportunities for licensed graduates
- Dental Assistant
- Office Manager
- Clinic Coordinator
- Coordinator of Sterilization: “Recently there has been a big demand for DAs to work in sterilization centres within the office.”
- Float: taking over during lunch breaks and where needed when required.
- Working in a specialty office such as orthodontics, periodontics, oral surgery, or entodontics
According to the Federal Job Bank at www.jobbank.gc.ca, wages for dental assistants across Canada are between $16 and $31.20 per hour, with a median of $21.50.
On PEI, wages for DAs range from $15 to $23 per hour. “Lower wages and lack of benefits seems to be a reason why many individuals are not staying in this field,” says Wanda. “With the shortage of DAs, we hope to see wages and benefits increase, and then more individuals will be attracted to the profession and retention will be higher.”
The importance of dental assistants
“We employ seven dental assistants, some full-time and some part-time,” says Dr. Mike Connolly, a dentist at the Belvedere Dental Clinic in Charlottetown, and President of the PEI Dental Association.
“Dental assistants are a key component in the treatments required for our patients. We couldn’t get along without them.
“The shortage of DAs started out west about 10 years ago, and we have seen a shortage on PEI within the last few years. We are doing our best to identify the reasons and remedy them.
“The shortage may be addressed by promoting the profession in high schools and other populations, to give them an idea of what dental assistants do. We could invite students to come in and watch DAs at work.
“We have been losing dental assistants to other jobs which offer higher wages and benefits. As dental professionals, we need to take more consideration for DAs in regards to wages and benefits and provide a good work environment, because they are an important part of the team.
“The Dental Association is working with Holland College to find a way forward. The labour supply for any profession has its ups and downs, and it can be hard to strike the right balance and have just enough people for every available job.”
- Holland College Dental Assisting program, Charlottetown: www.hollandcollege.com/programs/Dental%20Assisting.html
- Oulton College Dental Assistant program, Moncton: www.oultoncollege.com/Our-Programs/Health-Sciences/Dental-Assistant/
- NSCC Dental Assisting program, Halifax: www.nscc.ca/learning_programs/programs/PlanDescr.aspx?prg=DASG&pln=DENTALASII
- Cape Breton Business College, Sydney: www.schoolfinder.com/Programs/44826/Cape-Breton-Business-College/Dental-Assisting-Level-II
The dental assisting program
Dental assisting programs provide training in such areas as microbiology and infection control, preventive dentistry, dental radiography, clinical assisting procedures, intraoral tasks such as taking x-rays and impressions, placing dental dams, and community dental health.
Holland College offers a 10-month accredited Dental Assisting program. Theory is delivered in a classroom setting. The clinical portion of the program is delivered in a clinic with fully functional dental operatories (working spaces), digital radiography units, and a dental lab. The program has a ratio of about 10 students per instructor.
The program contains a large theory component as well as a clinical component. Students are also required to do two practicums during the 10-month program.”
Gradates of the program must write a national board exam. Upon successful completion of the exam, they apply to the PEI Dental Council for a Level II license, which must be renewed every year.
Student in the program
After high school, Natalie Langille wanted to pursue a career in the healthcare field, but didn’t exactly know what she wanted to do. She enrolled in a nursing program at Holland College, but soon found it was not for her.
She spoke with Holland College Academic Advisor Karen Ford Doyle to discuss her options. After some discussion and personality tests, Karen suggested Natalie consider dental assisting.
“After my first week in the Dental Assisting program, I was excited,” says Natalie. “It clicked right away, and I felt so much better.
“When I did my first practicum, I shadowed a dental assistant. I liked how the job is always different. You have to think about what comes next, and I like the unpredictability of adjusting when something unexpected happens. After observing my first extraction, the dentist said she had never seen a student get so close to a month. I wanted to see everything.
“The program has a lot of theory, and you have to focus and put in the work to succeed. Having a science or math background makes the theory easier to understand. I put in a lot of study time. I am much more focussed now than I was in high school, because I know studying will lead to a job.
“I would definitely recommend this program to others. I’m not even working yet, and I love it already. There are so many ways to do a procedure, and it’s cool to see how everything is different and changing.”
Advice to those considering this profession
Spend a day observing in a general practice dental office and speak with a dental assistant to get an idea if this job is for you.
Dental assisting proves to be a rewarding and ever-changing career
Zoey Phillips has been a dental assistant for three years. She graduated from the Holland College Dental Assisting program in 2016, did five weeks of on-the-job training at Belvedere Dental Clinic in Charlottetown, and has worked there ever since.
Zoey is originally from Cape Breton, and has been interested in dental assisting ever since high school. “When we did on-the-job training in high school, I chose to shadow a dental assistant. The experience showed me this was something I would really enjoy doing.
“I am very people oriented, I am a very scheduled person, and I like knowing what is coming up next. And the variety of work is great–it is not just doing one thing all day. An appointment can change in a hurry. A simple exam can turn into a filling or an extraction.”
Belvedere Dental Clinic is a busy office, and has a staff of 15, including a receptionist, a hygienist, three dentists, and six dental assistants, with one on maternity leave.
A day in the life of a dental assistant
Zoey arrives at the office at 7:30 am and starts seeing patients at 8. “We see 20 to 30 patients a day. I plan for each patient’s appointment. If a filling is scheduled, I look to see which tooth is involved, how many surfaces are on the tooth, and what type of filling we are doing. I set up the material and instruments on a tray, so that when the patient sits down, the Dentist will be ready to work.
“Dental assistants are the first to see the patient after the receptionist. We take the patient to the right room, get them seated, and chat with them to get an idea about how they are feeling, and if they are anxious.
“We see patients from one year old to into their 90s. Kids can be especially nervous. I ask them questions and keep them occupied with a toothbrush and stickers and the TV.”
What does it take to be a dental assistant?
“You have to be a people person, upbeat, happy, and organized, and you need to learn how to work with each dentist. The key to dental assisting is to know what is coming next and what instrument will be needed, so you are always one step ahead.
“I would recommend this career to anyone who is interested. You become very close with your coworkers, since we do work so close to each other. I really love what I do, and I get to meet a lot of new people and see a lot of interesting things.”
Zoey agrees there is a shortage of dental assistants, and says about half of her graduating class has gone on to pursue a career in dental hygiene. “For me, assisting is a better choice, because there is such variety in what we get to do in the course of a day.”
For more about the Holland College Dental Assisting program, visit www.hollandcollege.com/programs/Dental%20Assisting.html.
For more information about this career, visit the Canadian Dental Assistants Association at www.cdaa.ca.