August 10, 2007
A career that's just for grins
The Seattle Times
The Seattle Times
Cynthia Gaetz is all smiles.
The 24-year-old dental assistant at Dr. Don Jayne's Seattle Center for Cosmetic Dentistry gets quite a kick out of her career.
Don't expect a lot of talk about cavities and pulled teeth when she describes her work of the past three years. Instead, Gaetz rattles off stories of rockstar smiles, a dental nerd convention and changed lives.
"We're rockin' and rollin,' " she said of her office. On average, she said she "battles the dental demons" of 12 to 15 patients daily.
With demand for dental assistants soaring, dentists are hoping more people will find the field as fascinating as Gaetz does. Dental assisting will be one of the fastest-growing U.S. occupations through 2014, with an increase of 27 percent or more needed, estimates the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"I see it skyrocketing," Gaetz said. "As an assistant, there's an extreme amount of growth, because there's so much more going on ... in dentistry and technology."
Assistants typically work chairside for restorative and surgical procedures – veneers, crowns, and fillings – handing dentists instruments and materials so they never have to look up. For other tasks – removing sutures, completing X-rays and providing patient education – assistants fly solo.
Gaetz also takes care of patient consultations, fills out referrals and treatment paperwork, performs sterilization and disinfection procedures, and gives pre-operative and post-operative instructions.
But an assistant's duties can vary among practices. "Some assistants sit chairside and just suction" during surgery, Gaetz said.
The hours can be long, but there are opportunities for flexibility within the profession. Part-time, specialty offices and roaming assistant options are available. "If you said, 'Gosh, I'd really love to do root canals all the time,' you could do that," Gaetz said.
These days, dental work is less often need-based and more often preventive. No longer are patients making an appointment when a tooth starts hurting; they're making appointments ahead of schedule to skirt potential problems.
And there's greater demand for appearance-based or elective dentistry, such as teeth whitening and implants.
"[Patients] want their teeth whiter, longer, squarer," Gaetz said. "Look in People magazine; do any of those celebrities have yellow teeth? It's just one of those things."
Advancements in technology – digital X-rays, intraoral pictures and videos, and new cavity-prevention techniques – allow dentists to better perform these cosmetic procedures.
"There's always new stuff coming out," Jayne said. "We're getting better technology ... that allows us to get more natural results."
Those results mean as a dental assistant you can help change lives, Gaetz said.
She recalls a woman with stains from tetracycline – an antibiotic that, when ingested during the stages of early tooth development, can cause teeth to turn gray or black. The woman was outfitted with a full case of veneers, a custom-made, thin layer of porcelain or other material that is cemented to each tooth.
"She was very young and had a lot of self-esteem issues, didn't want to laugh, didn't want to smile," Gaetz said. "She came back in with tears in her eyes and said ... 'I don't have those issues anymore. I'm moving forward.' It's pretty amazing, something where your whole life changes like that."
That's the kind of payoff that makes the hard work worthwhile, Gaetz said. She shares such stories with prospective dental assistants at the Dental Assistant Training Center in Seattle, where she teaches a 10-week program on Saturdays.
Dental offices often contact her for potential employee recommendations. Just last semester Gaetz taught 12 students – and already nine are employed.
"A 10-week program usually is all you need just to get your feet wet and really understand what you're getting yourself into," Gaetz said. "When you get into the office, you're going to learn what you need to know on the job."
Because dental assistants are not required to be certified, many of them learn on the job. However, more prospective assistants these days are opting to undergo the training and examinations necessary to become certified dental assistants (CDAs). The certification, offered through the Dental Assisting National Board, takes a year or less to complete.
To remain certified, assistants must take classes and attend seminars to acquire continuing-education credits.
Though not certified, Gaetz has accumulated more than 20 hours of education credits for the year. "Continuing education is important," she said "With technology changing as much as it is you have to have it."
Last month, almost 9,000 dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants hailing from all over the region attended the annual Pacific Northwest Dental Conference at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. Dental assistants were able to obtain continuing-education credits with lectures on aesthetics, clinical practices, infection control, restorative dentistry and other hot topics.
"It's a huge dental nerd convention," Gaetz said with a laugh.
In addition to advising dental assistants to stay on top of their educations, she tells them an outgoing personality is the secret ingredient to a successful dental assistant.
Dental practices tend to want individuals with an upbeat attitude to bring a spark to their offices, she said.
"A lot of places will hold out," Gaetz said. "We held out for months until we found the right person to bring into our family."
Caroline Davis: 206-464-3329 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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