Career Comparison
April 1, 2024

Medical vs. Dental Assistant Careers: Key Differences Explained

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Medical vs. Dental Assistant Careers: Key Differences Explained

Medical assistants are critical to healthcare teams all over the world. A study by the National Healthcareer Association (NHA) shows that 52% of employers believe that medical assistants had more responsibilities in 2022 compared to previous years.

But dental assistants are not too far behind - the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes the importance and relevance of dental assistants all over the world, not only in the USA.

However, it is worth noting that these two professions are different from each other.

If you are considering jumpstarting a career as a medical or dental assistant, then keep on reading to learn the differences and similarities between medical assistant vs. dental assistant career paths (backed up by data and official sources).

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Overview

A medical assistant is a healthcare professional prepared to perform both clinical and administrative tasks under the direct supervision of a physician or other healthcare professionals.

Medical assistants are ready to be part of a healthcare team led by a medical physician, but they can also only perform administrative duties, such as scheduling appointments and maintaining electronic health records.

On the other hand, dental assistants are healthcare professionals trained in basic dental assisting tasks. As their profession’s name suggests, dental assistants work primarily in a dentist’s office.

However, they are also suited to perform administrative procedures if required by their job environment. Dental assistants focus on the field of dentistry, whereas medical assistants are more generalists and can pursue more specific career paths.

Medical Assistants vs. Dental Assistants: Tasks and Responsibilities

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the duties of medical assistants vary depending on their specialty, location, and work environment.

Some medical assistants will exclusively perform clinical tasks, whereas others will mainly focus on administrative processes.

The duties of dental assistants also vary depending on where they work, but their duties are most targeted toward medical procedures assisting dentists rather than administrative processes.

Among the most common responsibilities of both dental and medical assistants, we have the following.

Dental Assistant Job Duties Medical Assistant Job Duties
  • Handling office management.
  • Keeping track of patient records and scheduling patient appointments.
  • Sterilize dental instruments.
  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene.
  • Process x-rays and dental impressions and complete lab tasks only under the direction of a dentist.
  • Performing patient care duties, such as ensuring that patients are comfortable in the dental chair.
  • Preparing patients in an exam room and preparing the work area for dental treatments and procedures.
  • Assist in administrative procedures inside medical offices.
  • Scheduling patient appointments and maintaining medical records.
  • Give patient injections depending on state laws.
  • Record patient history and organize medical records (electronic medical records).
  • Prepare blood samples for lab tests.
  • Record patient vital signs and blood pressure.
  • Be proficient in medical terminology.

Are Medical and Dental Assistants the Same Thing?

No, medical assistants and dental assistants are not the same things.

Medical assistants work under the supervision of physicians, whereas dental assistants work under the direct supervision of a dentist.

Both career paths consist of medical assisting healthcare professionals, which means that they are both very similar to each other.

However, dental assistants are prepared to work in the specialized healthcare field of dentistry. 

Other dentistry-related professionals, such as dental hygienists, are more specialized and prepared to conduct more skilled duties in dentists offices.

Likewise, other medical jobs and professions, such as nurse practitioners, require more formal education than medical assistants.

This means that although dental assistants are different from medical assistants, they are both professions specifically designed to assist licensed professionals instead of performing medical office procedures by themselves.

Dental Assistant vs. Medical Assistant: Work Environment

According to the BLS, medical assistants held about 743,500 jobs in 2021. The BLS also says that most medical assistants work full-time, and some of them are required to be available on holidays and weekends.

Dental assistants held about 358,600 jobs in 2021. Most dental assistants also work full time, and some of them must be available on weekends and holidays too. 

However, depending on the healthcare career chosen, the place of work will vary based on the job description and location. 

Where Can Medical Assistants Work?

Medical assistants can work in clinical or administrative areas, primarily in physician offices. These are the largest employers of medical assistants in the USA:

  1. 58 percent of medical assistants work in physician offices.
  2. 15 percent of medical assistants work in private healthcare facilities, urgent care centers, and hospitals (government and state).
  3. 9 percent of medical assistants work in outpatient care centers.
  4. Only 4 percent of medical assistants work in the offices of chiropractors. 

Where Can Dental Assistants Work?

Dental assisting is mostly required in the offices of dentists, as shown by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  1. 91 percent of dental assistants work in the offices of dentists.
  2. 2 percent of dental assistants work in government facilities.
  3. Only 2 percent of dental assistants work in the offices of chiropractors by assisting in simple oral health procedures.  

Dental Assistants vs. Medical Assistants: Skills and Qualities

Both dental and medical assistants have similar qualities and skills that help them perform efficiently in their work environments.

Medical assistants should have analytical skills and technical skills to follow medical diagnoses and handle medical instruments as required by physicians.

Likewise, dental assistants are required to have the dexterity to handle small dental tools and organizational skills to keep things organized inside a dental office.

Interpersonal skills are required for both professionals since patient education before medical procedures is one of the most important factors of both healthcare career paths.

Medical and dental assistants need to be detail-oriented to avoid mistakes while measuring important patient information, such as dental health procedures or taking vital signs.

However, it is worth noting that the skills of both professions are developed based on specific job requirements. 

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Education

The educational requirements for both dental and medical assistants are also similar to each other.

Both dental assistants and medical assistants are not required to be licensed in most states. However, professionals who want to pursue further certifications will need extra training and, therefore, state certification.

These are the educational requirements to become a medical or dental assistant.


How to Become a Medical Assistant

Becoming a medical assistant can be achieved by completing postsecondary medical assisting programs.

These programs can be found in vocational schools, technical schools, and community colleges, and usually take around just one year to complete.

Employers prefer to hire a certified clinical medical assistant who has completed an accredited program by a recognized institution, such as the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants and Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from American Medical Technologists.

The majority of medical assistants learn their duties through on-the-job training.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Students who want to become a dental assistant are required to have a high school diploma and earn certifications to become a certified dental assistant.

Dental assistant training programs take about one year to complete, and they can mainly be found in community colleges.

The  Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredits 250 different dental assisting programs. During these programs, students perform dental practices and learn about several areas in which dentists work.

Although dental assistants are not required to be licensed in most states, those who want to perform expanded duties are required to hold certifications from the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB).

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Salary

According to the BLS, the average salary of medical assistants was $37,190 in May 2021.

The lowest 10 percent of medical assistants had an average salary of $29,070, whereas the highest-paid medical assistants earned around $48,170 (median annual wage). These are the most relevant statistics of the average salary of certified medical assistants based on industry:

  1. Outpatient care centers - $38,270.
  2. Private, local, or state hospitals - $37,800.
  3. Offices of physicians - $37,150.
  4. Offices of chiropractors - $30,100.

On the other hand, dental assistants have a higher annual mean wage than medical assistants. In May 2021, the average salary of a dental assistant was $38,660. The highest 10 percent of dental assistants make $59,540 per year, whereas the lowest 10 percent of them make less than $29,580 on average.

Based on industry, these are the median salaries of dental assistants, according to the BLS:

  1. Government - $46,090.
  2. Offices of dentists - $38,500.
  3. Offices of physicians - $38,000.

Medical Assistants vs. Dental Assistants: Job Outlook

The career outlook for medical assistants looks promising for the years to come, according to a study performed by the BLS.

The employment of medical assistants is expected to grow 16 percent from 2021 to 2031, twice as fast as the employment of dental assistants (8 percent).

123,000 openings for medical assistants are projected each year, whereas only 56,400 openings for dental assistants are projected each year over the decade.

The dental assistant job outlook (by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) shows that dentists will continue to hire dental assistants to work more efficiently, which helps us predict a 388,700 employment number in 2031.

Moreover, the increasing demand for medical services helped us set the projected employment of 861,300 by 2031 for medical assistants.

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Differences and Similarities

Medical and dental assistants are similar career paths with some similarities and remarkable differences. Let’s check out the five most relevant similarities and differences between medical assistants and dental assistants:

  1. Both medical assistants' and dental assistants' roles consist of supporting a licensed doctor in clinical duties or administrative tasks (as required).
  2. The salary and job outlook statistics for both professions are different - there are more job openings for medical assistants than for dental assistants, but CMAs tend to earn less money on average.
  3. Becoming a dental assistant or medical assistant takes around one year, and both professions learn their duties through practice and on-the-job training.
  4. By 2031, there will be 54.8 percent more employment for medical assistants (861,300) than dental assistants (388,700).
  5. The highest 10 percent of dental assistants earn 19.1 percent more money than medical assistants ($59,540 vs. $48,170).


Do Dental Assistants Earn More than Medical Assistants?

On average, yes - dental assistants make $38,660 per year on average, whereas medical assistants have an average salary of $37,190. However, the difference is bigger if we compare the highest 10 percent earners of both professions.

Can a Certified Medical Assistant Replace a Dental Assistant?

Absolutely not. The roles and responsibilities of medical assistants are well established by several institutions. A direct violation of CMA’s scope of responsibilities is subject to disciplinary standards and procedures by the American Associations of Medical Assistants (AAMA). This includes temporary or permanent revocation of the CMA (AAMA) credential, but it can also lead to malpractice lawsuits which are way more serious.

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Program outcomes may vary depending on each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guranteed.