A dental assistant smiling while holding a clipboard

Dental Assistant vs Medical Assistant: What Career is Right for You

Due to the similar job duties and day-to-day tasks shared by dental assistants and medical assistants, you may find yourself at a crossroads, not knowing which job to choose. Whether you are starting out or making a career shift, it’s vital that you get the right information about these two professions so you can make the best decision possible.

In this article, we are going to compare dental assistants vs medical assistants by having a closer look at their job roles, average salaries, and so on. After reading this, you will be one step closer to reaching the best decision for your career path. Let’s get started!

Job Roles & Skills of Dental Assistants vs. Medical Assistants

One of the first considerations you might have is the tasks and duties associated with these professions. Of course, you would want a career that best suits your passions, interests, and inclinations. So in this section, we’ll cover the main job roles of these two career paths.

Dental Assistants

Dental assistants typically work in private clinics, but opportunities can also be found in educational facilities, hospitals, regional health units, dental supply companies, etc.

There are plenty of technical skills that a dental assistant in a hospital/clinic setting must have. But beyond technical skills, there is also the need to be able to interact with patients and make sure that they are comfortable throughout any procedure.

Tip: When applying for a dental assistant position, make sure you’re prepared with potential interview questions that the hiring manager might ask.

According to the Canadian Dental Assistants Association, A few major day-to-day tasks that dental assistants perform in a clinic/hospital setting include:

  • Assisting the dentist and hygienist during a variety of treatment procedures;
  • Taking and developing dental radiographs (x-rays);
  • Asking about the patient’s medical history and taking blood pressure and pulse;
  • Serving as an infection control officer, developing infection control protocol and preparing and sterilizing instruments and equipment;
  • Helping patients feel comfortable before, during and after dental treatment;
  • Providing patients with instructions for oral care following surgery or other dental
  • Treatment procedures, such as the placement of a restoration (filling);
  • Teaching patients appropriate oral hygiene strategies to maintain oral health (e.g., toothbrushing, flossing and nutritional counselling);
  • Taking impressions of patient’s teeth for study casts (models of teeth);
  • Performing office management tasks that often require the use of a computer;
  • Communicating with patients and suppliers (e.g., scheduling appointments, answering the telephone, billing and ordering supplies); and
  • Assisting with and helping to provide direct patient care in all dental specialties, including orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, periodontics and oral surgery.

 Dentist being assisted by a dental assistant

Medical Assistants

Medical Assistants can work in private clinics, hospital settings, chiropractic offices, OB-GYNs, pediatric clinics, and the like. Similar to dental assistants, medical assistants also need technical skills as well as skills in interacting with patients to make sure that they are comfortable.

A few major day-to-day tasks of a medical assistant include the following:

  • Scheduling and confirming appointments
  • Validating patients’ provincial health services cards
  • Assisting patients with the completion of medical or insurance forms
  • Taking patients to exam or treatment rooms
  • Admitting patients for overnight (or longer) stays
  • Directing patients to helpful resources
  • Collecting payments if necessary
  • Starting new medical files for new patients
  • Proofreading medical records
  • Updating electronic medical records
  • Preparing invoices and financial statements
  • Processing payments, bank documents, and payroll
  • Arranging for laboratory tests or hospital admissions
  • Helping patients get consultations with other doctors or specialists
  • Measuring patients’ basic vitals signs such as body temperature and blood pressure
  • Taking patients’ weight and height measurements
  • Cleaning and setting up exam and treatment rooms
  • Disinfecting and stocking medical instruments and supplies

assistant walks the halls of a hospital

Training Needed to be a Dental Assistant vs. Medical Assistant

Another factor you might be considering is the amount and kind of training you would need to undergo to be a dental assistant or medical assistant. In this section, we’ll talk about how long the studies would take, what major subjects you would take up, and how the licensure process works.

Dental Assistants

The first step is completing formal education through a Dental Assistant Program. This will typically take about a year to complete. To get into this program, completion of high school with an emphasis on sciences is required. Additionally, some programs require their students to maintain a valid CPR Level C Certificate.

The following mandatory skills will be covered in the training program:

  • Chairside dental assisting
  • Expose dental radiographs
  • Oral hygiene instruction
  • Dietary counselling relative to oral health
  • Selective coronal polishing
  • Applies and removes dental dam
  • Takes preliminary impressions
  • Applies treatment liner
  • Applies and removes matrix and wedge
  • Applies fluoride
  • Applies pit and fissure sealant
  • Applies desensitizing agents
  • Applies topical anesthetic
  • Performs tooth whitening using trays

Throughout Canada, dental assisting is considered a “restricted health care occupation.” This means that though the profession is self-regulated, most provinces will require a license for their dental assistants. This means the individual, after completing formal education, must pass the exam given by the National Dental Assisting Examining Board (NDAEB.) The abovementioned skills are required before an individual is qualified to take this exam.

Note – To confirm if the NDAEB certificate is required for your province, you can contact the Dental Assisting Regulatory Authority.

Medical Assistants

Certificate programs for medical assistants generally take eight months to 1 year. Other programs that result in a post-secondary diploma can last about two years. Though both these programs can prepare an individual for an entry-level position, some employers may prefer an individual who has completed a more extensive training program.

The subjects covered typically include the following:

    • Medical terminology
    • Patient relations
    • Fundamentals of healthcare operations
    • Business and medical communications
    • Medical recordkeeping and filing procedures
    • Scheduling and planning systems
    • Medical office software
    • Health care policies and government regulations
    • Ethics and standards of conduct for health care professionals

Currently, medical assistants are not regulated anywhere in Canada. This means that aspiring medical assistants won’t need to obtain a professional certification or government license to work.

Salary for Dental Assistants vs. Medical Assistants

How much you are paid in any line of work influences your sense of security and well-being. Aside from a profession’s alignment with your inclinations and talents, the salary you will make is another important point of consideration.

Dental Assistants

In Canada, the average salary for dental assistants is around $44,700 per year. This translates to $22.93 per hour. This can be higher or lower depending on the dental assistant’s experience and region of work. Entry-level positions can start at $30,120 per year, while more experienced professionals can make up to $61,555 per year. The top regions with the highest recorded salaries for dental assistants are Alberta, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia.

Medical Assistants

Medical assistants in Canada typically earn slightly less than dental assistants, with an income of $41,681 per year. This translates to $21.37 per hour. This can also be higher or lower depending on the medical assistant’s experience level and region of work. Entry-level medical assistant positions typically earn $23,240 per year. Meanwhile, more experienced medical assistants can earn up to $62,150 per year, which is higher than what experienced dental assistants typically earn annually.

Is Being a Dental Assistant Your Calling?

Based on what you’ve read in this article, do you feel pulled toward becoming a dental assistant? If so, feel free to check our article, The Role and Duties of a Dental Assistant – this resource sheds more light on what you will be doing daily as a dental assistant.

If you’re ready to take the next step, we are here for you. Cestar College in Toronto is one of the top accredited institutions that can provide you with the comprehensive Dental Assistant Program that you’d need to succeed in the profession. Get ready to be equipped with key skills like dental radiography, operative dentistry, preventive dentistry, and patient care.

Got any questions for us? Feel free to reach out, and we’ll be more than happy to help!

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