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Medical Assistant Or Dental Assistant—Which Should You Become?

Medical Assistant Or Dental Assistant

When it comes to careers, it helps to take into account your preferences and your personality. Some people don’t want to report to an office every day. They prefer to work alone, or with only occasional interaction with coworkers or customers. So, they choose such careers in construction trades, trucking, massage therapy, plumbing, or HVAC, among many other choices.

Other people love to report to the same, nice office and coworkers every day. They like learning a special trade or skilled work that involves working with customers, patients, or clients—so every day is the same, yet different.

If you find you fall into the second group, you know what careers to rule out. If, however, you also are detail-oriented, analytical, technical—when it comes to office programs and various instruments—have good interpersonal skills, and enjoy helping as a team member, then you may want to consider becoming a dental assistant or a medical assistant.

People-Focused Careers 

Dental assistants and medical assistants share the common goal of assisting professionals—physicians and dentists—in offices or healthcare office settings.

Both require knowing a variety of duties, some repetitive, some varied, yet all contribute to the successful operation of the overall office. Both assistant roles require similar amounts of training, offer similar salary levels and, best of all, lots of job opportunities.

If you’re interested in such work but wondering what the differences in these two roles are, this article may help you make the decision. It’s important to know, too, that in various surveys, more than 70 percent of medical and dental assistants report liking their jobs and believing their work helps make the world a better place.

What are Medical Assistants?

Medical assistants work with physicians to complete administrative and clinical duties in a physician’s office, a hospital, or other healthcare facilities such as nursing homes or outpatient facilities. However, nearly 60 percent of medical assistants work in physicians’ offices.

Depending on which kind of office you work in, physicians’ specialties, and how large a practice or healthcare facility is, duties will vary.

There are different kinds of medical assistants. The most common are administrative medical assistants and clinical medical assistants. Other, much more specialized roles include ophthalmic, optometric, and podiatric medical assistants. But most medical assistants fall into the first two categories, so we’ll focus on those.

What are Dental Assistants?

In general, dental assistants’ work resembles that of medical assistants, in that they assist dentists in offices, and perform some administrative duties, such as setting up equipment and keeping records. But for the most part, their work is clinical. About 90 percent of dental assistants work in dentist offices.

When researching more about dental assistants, you may run into other names for this career, such as certified dental assistant, dental aide, or dental attendant, among others.

Like medical assistants, dental assistants also can specialize—which often requires further training. Some of these specialties include:

  • office manager
  • hygiene assistant
  • endodontic assistant
  • orthodontist assistant
  • pediatric assistant
  • expanded duties dental assistant

What Do Medical Assistants and Dental Assistants Do?

Medical Assistant

Administrative medical assistants’ duties may include scheduling appointments, maintaining medical records and billing, or coding information for insurance claims. They also may keep up with inventory, and order medical, lab, or office supplies and equipment.

Clinical medical assistants perform clinical duties, which are more numerous. These include:

  • keeping examination rooms neat, clean, and ready for patients
  • prepping patients for examination
  • taking vital signs
  • drawing blood
  • taking height and weight
  • helping physicians with patient exams
  • administering medications per physicians’ instructions Sterilizing or disinfecting instruments
  • setting up instrument trays
  • preparing blood samples for lab tests
  • recording all this information in patients’ medical history files

Dental Assistant

Dental assistants’ more administrative duties usually include setting up appointments, handling billing, and maintaining patients’ dental histories, if that role is not done by the clinical dental assistant.

During procedures and in the lab, dental assistants switch to different duties. They:

  • Hand instruments to dentists
  • Dry patients’ mouths with suction hoses
  • Process x-rays
  • Complete lab tests (under the direction of the dentist)
  • Take impressions of a patient’s teeth for mouth guards, dental implants, or crowns
  • Polish crowns
  • Conduct fluoride treatment
  • Help to create dental appliances such as retainers, implants, and custom-fitted whitening trays
  • Review post-procedure information, such as proper oral hygiene, with patients

One dental expert who has worked with good and not-so-good dental assistants has suggested a few tips for success. They apply to medical assistants as well.

  • Be proactive.
  • Be a good listener and ask questions.
  • Be observant and organized during procedures.
  • Be a good communicator.
  • Keep current with new procedures, skills, and technology.
  • Keep a positive attitude.

How to Become a Medical Assistant or Dental Assistant

Medical assistant

To become a medical assistant, you will need to earn a high school diploma or GED. After that, most states don’t have set requirement or mandate formal certification.

Having said that, there are two general routes to this career: on-the-job training, and certification via postsecondary education programs.

On-the-job training: Many physicians, or medical assistants already on staff, will train you. Some of the things you will learn are:

  • Medical terminology
  • Names of medical instruments
  • How to interact with patients
  • A variety of daily tasks that help the office operate smoothly
  • How to code paper and electronic health records (EHRs), which are likely to displace paper records soon

Postsecondary education programs take longer and offer formal certification. Medical assistant programs are offered at community colleges, vocational and technical schools, and universities.

It will take you one or two years to earn certification, depending on which school or program you choose. But in general, one-year programs result in certification. Two-year programs at community colleges or universities will result in an associate degree.

Even though most states require no official certification for medical assistants, and that many physicians offer on-the-job medical assistant training, the reality is that most employers prefer assistants with at least some kind of certification.

In order to earn certification or license, you will have to be 18, have graduated from an accredited program, have some work experience, and pass an exam. There are several kinds of certifications offered via the National Commission for Certifying Agencies:

Dental assistant

Like medical assistants, prospective dental assistants also need to have a high school diploma or GED, and they are not required by many states to earn a certificate or degree. But those who do complete some higher education definitely have an advantage over those who learn on the job.

Also, like medical assistant training, depending on the program you enroll in, it will take one to two years to earn these credentials. However, most dental assistant programs last one year.

You will want to be sure to attend a school accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. The Dental Assisting National Board offers certification for Certified Dental Assistant, recognized by nearly 40 states, and required by many of them. You will have to pass an exam, and you’ll need CPR training and certification to be eligible to take the exam.

How Much Do Medical Assistants and Dental Assistants Make?

Medical and dental assistants have similar average salaries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For medical assistants, the 2023 average pay was $43,350. For dental assistants, the average pay in 2023 was $47,350.

Are There Jobs Available?

You won’t have to worry about employment with either of these careers. Both have bright futures in terms of job opportunities. BLS reports that both jobs are growing faster than average between now and 2032.

Chart Your Course

If you’re more interested in general anatomy, physiology, you might lean toward becoming a medical assistant. If you aren’t shy about placing your hands in people’s mouths and are interested in a stronger hands-on approach, then perhaps dental assisting is for you.

Both are great choices that promise decent wages and lots of job openings. Start looking for schools now!


Becoming A Medical Assistant

Becoming A Dental Assistant

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