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Becoming a medical assistant or a dental assistant, which career is right for me?

If you are contemplating becoming a medical assistant or dental assistant, you will realize that the two professions are quite similar. Both medical assistants and dental assistants work under the supervision of certified doctors: dentists and physicians. They both play supportive roles in the office, like patient record management and paperwork filing.

Despite their similarities, there are some disparities between these two career paths. Usually, medical assistants can be broken down into two categories, administrative or clinical, while dental assistants help with nearly everything in the dental office. 

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Education programs for dental assistants and medical assistants.

Both medical assisting and dental assisting diplomas or certificates require about 9-12 months of study. While it is easier for medical aides to find work without formal training, dental aides are generally required to hold certification. However, it’s good to note, in both professions certification helps candidates find employment more easily. Additionally, both types of assistants can earn an associate degree after 18-24 months of training, though this is not required to join an entry-level job.

Depending on the nature of work medical aides wishes to pursue, their training can be composed of clinical or administrative courses. Dental assisting students mainly focus on a more clinical education, though both professions require coursework in practical and administrative duties. Dental assisting students can look forward to learning about jaws, teeth, oral care, and other key dental related skills, while medical aides focus on physiology, anatomy, and medical terminology.

Job duties of medical assistants and dental assistants.  

Both medical and dental assistants provide direct and indirect patient care and might greatly differ given the preferences of the supervising doctor. The main difference between dental and medical aides is that medical aides work with various parts of the patient’s body while dental aides deal only with the mouth.

Well, let’s look at what medical and dental assistants can — and cannot — be permitted to do within the scope of their profession.

As a Medical Assistant, you can:

  •  Schedule patient appointments, tests, and procedures.
  • Take and update medical histories
  • Manage patient records and accounts
  • Serve as liaison between doctor and patient
  •  Maintain office and medical equipment
  •  Prepare instruments and exam room
  • Assist physicians with procedures, exams, and minor surgeries
  • Take inventory and order office and medical supplies
  • Administer medications under the supervision of a doctor
  • Collect specimens, such as urine and blood, for lab tests
  • Be a comfort to patients

That’s a lot of responsibility! However, some duties are beyond medical assistants’ purview.

As a Medical Aide, you cannot:

  •  Diagnose or treat patients
  • Perform triage or plan patient care 
  • Interpret test results
  •  Prescribe or refill medications
  • Advise patients about their medical problems
  • Administer anesthetics or IV medications
  • Operate laser equipment
  • Give out free samples of drugs        

The good thing about becoming a medical aide, though, is that the roles you are allowed to play depend on where you reside. The responsibilities differ by state; meaning, what’s acceptable in one region, may not be permitted somewhere else. For instance, in the State of California, Medical aides are permitted to carry out additional supportive services as long as they have gotten the necessary training from their employer.

In Montana, medical aides should have “active and continuous” supervision from a licensed physician, though the rules don’t specify if the doctor really needs to be onsite to offer that direction. On the other hand, an advanced nurse practitioner in Alaska may even entrust the administration of IV drugs to a certified medical assistant.

As a dental assistant, you can:

  • Get patients ready to see the dentist or hygienist
  •  Update patient records
  • Prepares treatment room for patients
  • Hand over instruments to the dentist during operations
  • Maintain dental supplies inventory
  • Provide diagnostic information by developing and exposing x-rays
  • Dry out the patient’s mouth with the use of suction hose
  • Help in sterilizing instruments and delivering these instruments to the treatment room
  • Perform billing and payment procedures
  •  Educate patients on oral hygiene and give post care instructions
  •  Help patients feel relaxed before and after procedures

As a dental assistant, you cannot:

As a dental assistant, some things do not fall under your scope. Do you recall the story of the oral surgeon in Tulsa and all the related issues that came up as a result of his actions? Well, if you don’t remember, here is a brief of what happened.

According to what was unearthed by the media, dental aides in the said practice were allegedly administering anesthesia to patients who were undergoing procedures related to sleep dentistry. When they were notified that the act was not permissible under Oklahoma’s dental regulations, their only defense was, “but we were told it’s OK.” See…it wasn’t right, and their lack of knowledge of the law brought about problems for themselves and the owner of the practice.

So, are you aware of what you can legally do and not do in your state? If a dentist requested you to do a particular procedure today, would you tell with confidence that it is permissible under your state’s dental laws? Well, there is a way to find out.      

Visit the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) website and check what your state permits dental aides to do. All the states are listed there, and you may be taken aback by what is allowable and not allowable.  

The difference in pay between medical assistants and dental assistants

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) attests that dental aides made a higher median income compared to medical assistants in 2018.  That year, dental aides earned a median salary of $38, 660 while medical aides made a median of $33, 610

In the coming years, both fields are also expected to experience above-average employment growth. According to BLS statistics, employment of dental aides is expected to grow by 19% while that of medical aides is projected to grow by 29%.

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Which career is appropriate for you?

If you are interested in joining either the dental assisting or medical assisting fields, consider your strengths and interests. To thrive in either of these professions, you should be a team worker, excellent communicator, and detail-oriented.  That said; some people may be more fitting to assist in a dental practice than a medical office because of the disparity between the two roles. 

If you are a hands-on person who yearns to assist with office exams, unlimited opportunities for this nature of work will be available in a dental aide position. On the other hand, those more inclined to the administrative side of things can opt for a career in medical assisting. All said and done; both professions will give you opportunities to assist in health fields and interact with patients.