Assist to succeed: New local program focuses on dental assistant training

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

Last year, Forbes Magazine named dental assistant as the No. 1 job for young people. Joy King, an eight-year dental assistant at Marquis Dental Center in Fulton, wouldn’t argue with that.

“Most jobs don’t provide opportunities for personal or educational growth,” she said. “Dental assisting has enabled me to develop a career that allows advancement within the profession.”

Plus, it’s a job completely focused on making people smile. It’s hard to beat that, she said.

King may just be the ideal person —passionate and enthusiastic — to teach a program on being a dental assistant. Her employers certainly seem to think so. For the past 10 weeks, King has headed instruction of Assist to Succeed — a course designed to train participants in becoming dental assistants. The first session, one of three planned for the year, is just wrapping up; a second session is set to begin on July 13.

In order to help increase public understanding of the program and dental assistance in general, Marquis Dental Center will be hosting an open house this Sunday, July 9, beginning at 6 p.m. The event will feature a tour of the facility and general information about the program.

Each session can accommodate up to 12 students. Three participants took part in the first session, a number anticipated to be far surpassed with the second.

As the job title suggests, dental assistants work side-by-side with dentists, aiding in any way they can. This can be something simple, from passing tools or speaking with patients prior to being seen by the dentist. Dental assistants frequently run X-Rays or create crowns. They do a bit of everything.

The ATS program takes place over the course of 10 Saturdays. Students train to become dental assistants through a combination of traditional classroom instruction, hands-on learning and job shadowing. Each day lasts from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., with mornings spent in a classroom-style setting, and the afternoon portion of the day studying the more technical parts of the job — taking impressions, making crowns, seating patients, etc.

Once a participant “graduates” from the program, he or she is prepared with most of the basic knowledge needed to be a dental assistant. Certification in CPR and AED usage are included in the course, as is radiology licensing and vaccination. Participants will also be trained in the usage of CAD/CAM to create crowns.

According to Dr. George Marquis, ATS Director of Education and founder, being a dental assistant requires more than just knowledge of the technology used in a dental office. Part of the job involves making patients feel as welcome and comfortable as possible. In a way, dental assistants are the first line of communication between the patient and his or her dentist, often speaking at length about patient problems and concerns. Good assistants are few and far between; experienced dental assistants are even more rare.

“I’d say about 80 percent of the people working here came in with absolutely no knowledge of what dentistry is all about,” Marquis said, speaking of his own dental practice. That deficiency is largely expected, he said; there aren’t a lot of dental education programs in the area, so most area dental assistants receive on-the-job training. It works, but it’s not ideal.

“We’ve never had the luxury of sitting down and training our dental assistants for two or three months,” Marquis said. “We’ve got to work.”

Sometimes, a dentist will run through two or three assistants before finding a good fit. It’s not just about technical competence; it’s about finding a person who gels with the dentist on a personal level.

While the ATS can’t really train a participant for this latter quality, it can provide a solid technical foundation and help familiarize participants with the basics of working in a dental office. Program participants spend a lot of time working in different dental offices — five offices in Northeast Mississippi are currently helping with the program and Marquis hopes to recruit others in the future. This should help them gain some first-hand experience.

“We want them to be able to see how a dental office actually operates,” Marquis said. “They’ll learn the basics of how a dentistry office is set up and operates. By the time they leave, they’ll be familiar with 90 percent of the offices in the area.”

As a bonus, the opportunity to job shadow doubles as an opportunity to get a leg up in the industry. For instance, one of the program’s participants actually received a job offer at a Tupelo dentist office, even before she had completed the program. Marquis said that situation is ideal.

“We’re hoping this actually works out to be an interview program,” he said. “When they leave the program, we want them to be able to start working. They will have had a great curriculum, be familiar with several dental offices in the area and be ready to go to work as dental assistants. They will be ‘road-ready.’”

For more information on the Assist to Succeed program, call 862-7434.

adam.armour@journalinc.com