Smiling dental professional holding tools

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant

Discover the Differences in Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Salary, and Job Outlook

Smiling dental professional holding tools

Once you acquire the education and skills to become a Medical Assistant (MA), you’ll discover many career options and types of facilities where you can work—like hospitals, outpatient centers, and physician’s offices. But you may not realize that becoming an MA can also serve as a springboard into many related careers or help you move on to additional training programs that can build on your healthcare career.

This article is part of a series that compares the differences between a Medical Assistant and other related careers. This one focuses on Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant and highlights differences in schooling requirements, job outlook, and average salaries for these jobs.

If you’re interested in preparing for a MA career, you can read more in our related article about how to become a Medical Assistant.

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Definition

If you’re looking at Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant as two possible career options, you’ll find similarities in the roles and a few important differences. The right career for you may come down to the type of office you want to work in and your long-term career goals. In this article, we’ll walk you through the essential characteristics of each job so that you can make the best decision. Let’s start by defining each role.

What is a Medical Assistant?

The Medical Assistant definition provided by The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that MAs complete administrative and clinical tasks in hospitals, offices of physicians, and other healthcare facilities. Medical Assistants can choose from several certification programs based on their career goals and the state where they plan to work.

What is a Dental Assistant?

The Dental Assistant definition is similar. Dental Assistants also perform tasks related to patient care. They handle recordkeeping, scheduling appointments, and making sure patients are comfortable. Unlike MAs, Dental Assistants work primarily in dentist offices, not hospitals.

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Job Description

One of the best ways to understand the similarities and differences between these two careers is to look at the job duties. This will give you a good idea of what the daily work might entail. Let’s start by looking at Medical Assistant duties.

What Does a Medical Assistant do?

Doctors and nurses have come to rely on MAs to handle administrative and increasing clinical tasks as part of their day-to-day responsibilities. In this role, your actual tasks will vary by the type of office or facility you work in, but the following is an excellent general overview of job duties.

Medical Assistant Responsibilities

  • Updates the patient’s medical records
  • Administers medicines under the supervision of a physician
  • Assists during medical examinations
  • Prepares medical samples for laboratory testing
  • Manages the schedule of appointments
  • Assists patients with their bills and in filling out forms

What Does a Dental Assistant do?

The Dental Assistant duties are comparable, but the health focus is on dental care. Following are a few of the tasks you might regularly perform when working in this position at a dentist’s office.

Dental Assistant Responsibilities

  • Keep records and work with patients on billing
  • Prepares patients for treatments and procedures
  • Process X-rays and lab tests under the direction of a dentist
  • Dry patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Hand instruments to the dentist during procedures
  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene

Where Do Medical Assistants Work?

Next, let’s review where MAs typically work. The majority, 57%, work in physicians’ offices. Another 15% work in state, local, and private hospitals. Others work in outpatient care centers (8%) and offices of chiropractors (4%). Work schedules at these offices and facilities are usually full-time, and some require evenings, weekends, and holidays—especially medical facilities that are always open.

Where Do Dental Assistants Work?

About 90% of all Dental Assistants work in dentist offices. A small percentage work in other locations, with about 4% working in physician’s offices or government offices. Dental Assistants work full time and wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and protective clothing to prevent the spreading of infectious diseases. Besides dentists, they also work with dental hygienists in their day-to-day activities.

Aerial view of students at a table

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Schooling

Our next comparison is the amount of education you need for each of these careers and how long it will take to finish the required training or degree. Here’s what you need to know:

Educational Requirements for Medical Assistants

Most Medical Assistants must complete an educational program accredited by an approved regional or national accreditation agency and become certified. You’ll study multiple areas in your program, such as patient interaction, basic coding and billing, medical office procedures, and electronic medical records. You’ll also learn how to assess and intervene in specific patient situations. You can choose to complete a diploma program or an associate degree program.

For example, Brookline College offers an accelerated Medical Assisting program that provides the necessary training for entry-level positions in a healthcare facility such as a clinic, physician’s office, or urgent care facility. This program offers a healthcare diploma.

Once you graduate, you can study for and pass a certification exam. You can choose from five different Medical Assistant certifications once you finish your program. In addition, some employers, or states, require a specific certification to start working in that state. For more information, read our article, The Best Medical Assistant Certification for Your Career.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Medical Assistant?

You can earn a healthcare diploma or complete an associate degree program.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Medical Assistant?

Your program can take anywhere from nine months (for a healthcare diploma) to two years (if you choose the option to obtain an associate degree). The diploma program at Brookline College can be completed in about nine months.

Educational Requirements for Dental Assistants

Some states require that you graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam to become a Dental Assistant. But in other states, an exam is not required, and new employees learn their duties through on-the-job training. However, most candidates complete a formal program that includes classroom and laboratory work, learning how to handle dental instruments and other equipment they will use in their day-to-day duties.

Some states require certification for Dental Assistants. Several types of certifications are available, but the two most popular certifications are Certified Dental Assistant (CDA), administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB); and the Registered Dental Assistant (RDA), administered by American Medical Technologists (AMT). You can visit these sites to determine certification requirements in your state.

Brookline College offers a Dental Assisting program that provides the training you need to start working as a Dental Assistant.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Dental Assistant?

Most Dental Assistants complete a certificate or diploma program, although a few programs offer an associate degree.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Assistant?

The BLS reports that dental assistant programs take about a year to complete. Those who opt for associate degree programs typically take two years. The diploma program at Brookline College can be completed in 40 weeks (roughly 10 months).

Medical professional holding a piggy bank

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Salary

Another important comparison is how much you can make performing these two medical jobs. See below for the average salaries for MAs and Dental Assistants.

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

The BLS reports that the median annual wage for Medical Assistants was $38,000 in May 2021. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned around $29,000, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $48,000.

This chart shows the top paying industries for Medical Assistants:

Industry  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Agencies, brokerages, and other insurance-related activities $ 25.46 $ 52,970
Professional and commercial equipment and supplies merchant wholesalers $ 23.53 $ 48,940
Outpatient care centers $ 21.48 $ 44,680
Electronic Shopping and mail-order houses $ 21.36 $ 44,420
Insurance carriers $ 21.34 $ 44,390

Below are the highest-paying states for Medical Assistants:

State  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Washington $ 22.75 $ 47,320
District of Columbia $ 22.45 $ 46,690
Alaska $ 22.30 $ 46,390
California $ 21.53 $ 44,780
Massachusetts $ 21.25 $ 44,200

Here are the cities with the highest pay for Medical Assistants.

City  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Vallejo, CA $ 28.21 $ 58,670
San Francisco, CA $ 26.41 $ 54,930
San Jose, CA $ 25.90 $ 53,870
Santa Rosa, CA $ 25.74 $ 53,530
Sacramento, CA $ 24.78 $ 51,530
Seattle, WA $ 24.43 $ 50,820
Napa, CA $ 24.27 $ 50,480
Fairbanks, AK $ 22.62 $ 47,060
Portland, OR $ 22.41 $ 46,620
Olympia, WA $ 21.95 $ 45,650

How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?

The BLS reports that the median annual wage for Dental Assistants was $42,500 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,500, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $59,500.

This chart shows the highest paying industries for Dental Assistants:

Industry  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
State government (excluding schools and hospitals) $ 24.12 $ 50,170
Specialty hospitals (except psychiatric and substance abuse) $ 23.18 $ 48,210
Home health care services $ 23.04 $ 47,930
General medical and surgical hospitals $ 22.68 $ 47,180
Federal executive branch $ 22.10 $ 45,970

Below are the highest-paying states for Dental Assistants:

State  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Minnesota $ 25.52 $ 53,080
Massachusetts $ 24.62 $ 51,210
Alaska $ 24.35 $ 50,640
New Hampshire $ 23.79 $ 49,470
Oregon $ 23.45 $ 48,780

Here are the cities with the highest pay for Dental Assistants.

City Hourly average wage Annual average wage 
San Francisco, CA $ 26.51 $ 55,150
Minneapolis, MN-WI $ 26.45 $ 55,020
San Jose, CA $ 26.25 $ 54,590
Santa Rosa, CA $ 25.27 $ 52,550
Rochester, MN $ 25.25 $ 52,510
Barnstable Town, MA $ 25.18 $ 52,380
Boston, MA- $ 25.16 $ 52,330
Bismarck, ND $ 25.11 $ 52,240
Fairbanks, AK $ 24.97 $ 51,940
Portsmouth, NH $ 24.57 $ 51,110

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Job Outlook

Now that you have a good idea of the job duties for these two healthcare jobs and the educational requirements and average salaries, let’s look at the projected job outlooks.

Smiling group of medical workers

Medical Assistant Job Outlook

How are MA careers expected to grow over the next decade? The BLS reports that the employment of Medical Assistants is projected to grow 18% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average of all other occupations.

More than 104,000 openings for Medical Assistants are projected each year, on average, over the next decade. These rapidly expanding jobs may be in hospitals, physician offices, and other healthcare facilities. Many of these jobs may require Medical Assistant certifications.

Click here to learn more on how to become a Medical Assistant.

Dental Assistant Job Outlook

Employment for Dental Assistants, also growing faster than the average for all occupations, is projected to grow by 11% from 2020 to 2030.

About 44,000 openings for dental assistants will become available each year during the next decade. Some of those jobs may result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or retire from the workforce.

Click here to learn more on how to become a Dental Assistant.

Which Job Is Right for You?

If you’re just starting your healthcare career, you may wonder which of these two careers is the best first step. You can complete either of these programs in about the same amount of time. If you’re interested in working in a hospital and possibly moving on to complete more medical training in the future, you may want to opt for the Medical Assisting role. As indicated, the salaries are also comparable. So it may come down to which environment you want to work in most—a dentist’s office, a physician’s office, or a hospital.

Reach Your Healthcare Career at Brookline College

Good luck as you choose the right healthcare career and the educational partner to help you prepare to work in your field of choice. Brookline College offers a Medical Assisting program that provides the necessary training for entry-level positions as a Medical Assistant. It also offers a Dental Assisting program that provides the training you need to start working in a dental care career.