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What does a dental nurse do?
A dental nurse is a healthcare professional who assists dentists and others in the dental team in all aspects of patients’ dental care and treatment, from check-ups to fillings and X-rays to sterilising instruments.
Dental nurses can work in general dentistry in dental practices or specialise in other areas within hospital environments, such as implantology, endodontics, orthodontics, sedation or radiography. They can also support dentists who provide dentistry for vulnerable patients in the community. Therefore, what they do will depend on their specialisms and where they work.
A dental nurse’s main aim is to support dentists while they carry out treatments to provide the best possible care and treatment. They also help patients by reassuring them, which can make a positive difference to those who are nervous and anxious when going to the dentist.
Dental nurses will carry out many tasks, including welcoming/reassuring patients, sterilising instruments, passing various equipment and materials to dentists, preparing materials for fillings, removing water and saliva, following infection control procedures, maintaining dental equipment, etc. The role will also have an element of administrative work, such as making notes and keeping records.
Dental nurses can work with many colleagues, including dentists, other dental nurses, technicians, hygienists, receptionists, therapists and administrative staff. They will also liaise with various external stakeholders, such as patients (children and adults) and their family members, GPs, doctors, suppliers, delivery companies, the Care Quality Commission, local authorities, etc.
Dental nurses mainly work for private dental practices, centres, studios and surgeries. They can also work in National Health Service (NHS) dental practices or hospitals, the armed forces and the community in schools, prisons, specialist health centres, mobile dental clinics, hospices, nursing homes and patients’ homes.
A dental nurse’s responsibilities will depend on many factors, including their role, who they work for, where they work and the area in which they specialise.
Some examples of their day-to-day duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Preparing the surgery for opening and before each patient.
- Welcoming patients and putting them at ease.
- Ensuring patients are comfortable.
- Following instructions given by the dentist and responding promptly.
- Sterilising instruments and equipment ready for use.
- Preparing materials for fillings.
- Passing various equipment, instruments, and materials to dentists during procedures.
- Conducting X-rays and other scans to identify any dental problems.
- Removing saliva, water and debris from patients’ mouths during treatment.
- Maintaining dental equipment.
- Keeping the dental surgery exceptionally clean and tidy.
- Supporting other members of the dental team where required, e.g. hygienists and technicians.
- Checking and ordering dental supplies and materials.
- Ensuring infection control procedures are followed.
- Making notes while the dentist is examining patients.
- Keeping patient records.
- Working in reception, answering phones and booking patients in.
A dental nurse can expect to work 37-40 hours a week, usually Monday-Friday. However, some may need to work evenings or weekends on a rota to meet patients’ needs. There may also be a requirement to be on-call for emergencies.
Most dental nurses work full-time. However, flexible work is possible for some dental nurses, e.g. part-time hours or a job share. There are even temporary locum self-employed jobs for those with more experience.
Travel may be necessary for some dental nurses, i.e. those who help dentists in the community. There may be a requirement to cover others in other areas and overseas opportunities, especially in the armed forces.
What to expect
There are many positives to being a dental nurse, especially if individuals are technical, have an interest in science and enjoy working with people all day. It would also suit those who want to work in a clean environment, such as a dental practice or hospital.
A dental nursing career is a good option for those interested in dentistry but don’t want all the training, costs and responsibility of becoming a dentist. It takes many years to qualify and register as a dentist but much less for dental nursing.
Being a dental nurse is very rewarding. They help dentists to ensure patients get the dental care they need. They also put patients at ease and make them comfortable, making the experience less distressing. Dental nurses can go home after the working day knowing they have made a positive difference to patients.
There is no shortage of dental nursing roles nationally, and there are various areas in which to specialise. The salary for dental nurses is good, especially with more experience.
Boredom will never be a problem for dental nurses, as their work is very varied. They will see and help care for many patients with various dental issues during their working day. One appointment may involve helping dentists with a routine examination and conducting X-rays; the next may be assisting with a filling or sterilising dental tools.
Even though there are positives to being a dental nurse, there are challenges and cons too, e.g.:
- Mental demands – being a dental nurse can be mentally demanding. Each patient will have different dental issues and may be in extreme pain or anxious, emotional and distressed, which can be challenging and put individuals at risk of verbal and physical abuse. Dental nurses work in a fast-paced environment and must respond quickly to dentists’ requests during treatment, which can be stressful for some.
- Unpleasant sights and smells – being a dental nurse is not for the squeamish. Some patients may have bad breath, rotten teeth, coated tongues and other oral issues that may be too unpleasant for some individuals. There may also be bodily fluids, such as blood and pus.
- Exposure to germs – dental nurses get very close to patients, so there is a risk of exposure to germs, such as viruses and bacteria. Dental nurses also have to maintain infection control between patients. They usually wear a uniform and protective equipment, such as tunics, aprons, masks, glasses and gloves.
- A lack of autonomy – dental nurses will take instructions from dentists and other dental team members. If individuals want more control of their job, this role is probably not the most suitable.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective dental nurses must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. There is no doubt that working in dentistry and with anxious people (often in pain) is challenging and stressful. It is also mentally demanding, there is a lack of autonomy and working with people’s mouths and teeth is not always pleasant. However, there are many positives and helping patients in many ways can be satisfying and rewarding.
When considering whether to be a dental nurse, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a dental nurse
Some of the personal qualities that a dental nurse requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Knowledge of medicine and dentistry.
- Knowledge of dental care techniques and assistance methods.
- Knowledge of related legislation and standards.
- Knowledge of health and safety and infection control.
- Knowledge of confidentiality, data protection and the GDPR.
- Having a caring attitude, sensitivity, empathy and understanding.
- Having confidence, patience and a calm and reassuring manner.
- Enjoying being hands-on with people daily.
- Excellent interpersonal skills, i.e. the ability to deal with patients of all ages and backgrounds.
- Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Customer service skills.
- Listening skills and the ability to follow instructions.
- Organisational and time management skills.
- Being motivated and committed to helping people and being concerned for their welfare.
- Being thorough and having attention to detail.
- The ability to work both in a team and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to keep concentration for long periods.
- The ability to be resilient in emotionally demanding situations.
- The ability to gain patients’ trust and confidence and build relationships with them.
- The ability to work under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to use IT equipment and software competently, e.g. digital imaging and patient records.
- The ability to work with and maintain different technical equipment.
- The ability to work well with their hands.
Qualifications and Training
If an individual wants to work as a qualified dental nurse, they must undertake a course approved by the General Dental Council (GDC).
Individuals do not need a degree to become dental nurses. However, having a degree can help them stand out, especially for specialist roles with more responsibility.
Some examples of courses include:
- Advanced Dental Nursing Professional Practice top-up (BSc Hons).
- Dental Nursing Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE).
- Dental Nursing Foundation Degree (FdSc).
- Dental Studies (Dental Care Professionals) (BSc Hons).
The entry requirements and the number of UCAS points needed will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying.
Some institutions may also invite applicants for an interview as part of the selection process.
Individuals must have at least a Level 3 qualification to become a dental nurse, which they can undertake at college.
Some example courses that may be useful are as follows (this list is not exhaustive):
- Level 3 Diploma in Dental Nursing.
- Level 3 Diploma in the Principles and Practice of Dental Nursing.
- Level 3 Extended Diploma in Dental Nursing.
- T Level in Health.
There are also Level 2 courses, e.g. Level 2 Preparing to Work in a Dental Setting, that individuals could undertake to see what working in a dental practice involves.
Individuals usually need:
- Level 2 – two or more GCSEs grades 9 to 3 (A* to D) or equivalent.
- Level 3 – four/five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent.
- T Levels – four/five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent (including English and maths).
It may also be worth enrolling on low-cost online short dental nursing courses to see if a career as a dental nurse would be of interest. That way, if not, it will save an individual a lot of time and trouble.
Courses and qualifications do not guarantee a role as a dental nurse. However, it will demonstrate to employers and companies that an individual is keen on the job and may give them a competitive edge. Always check the entry requirements before applying.
There is an apprenticeship route to help individuals become dental nurses, e.g. a dental nursing advanced apprenticeship. Individuals usually need five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), including English and maths, or equivalent.
Opportunities are on Government’s Apprenticeships, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and Indeed.
There are also dental nursing apprenticeship opportunities with the armed forces:
Some dental practices may take on individuals as trainees if they have the necessary personal qualities and enthusiasm for the role. Individuals can then study for their dental nursing qualification while gaining practical experience in a dental practice. It would help individuals to have previous experience. However, the requirements will depend on each employer.
Individuals may be able to work with recruitment agencies on temporary contracts in dental reception or administration roles, which could lead to something more permanent.
Volunteering can also help people gain valuable experience and develop skills. Individuals could volunteer with healthcare or dental charities, e.g. Dentaid or NHS England. They could also volunteer in customer-facing roles, e.g. fundraising. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO and Volunteering Matters.
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and keep their knowledge and skills current.
We have many approved courses that can be useful for individuals looking at a career as a dental nurse, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Infection control.
- Needles and sharps.
- PPE in healthcare.
- Mental health and capacity.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Health and safety, e.g. hazardous substances, work-related violence and workplace stress.
- Understanding the GDPR.
- Workplace first aid.
- Customer service skills.
- Complaints handling.
- Time management.
- Resilience training.
Professional bodies, societies and associations, such as the GDC, the British Association of Dental Nurses, and the Society of British Dental Nurses, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become dental nurses and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is mandatory to remain on registers.
The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for, an individual’s specialisms and the CPD requirements for registration. As well as looking at professional body websites, it is also worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the courses required and other training needed for specialist roles. Jobs are on NHS Jobs, BDJ Jobs, Dental Guide, HealthJobsUK, JobsMedical and other job sites, such as Armed Forces Careers and Indeed. Also, look at recruitment agencies and individual company websites for roles.
More relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for dental nurses. Refresher training will also be required, as it keeps knowledge and skills updated.
The register will require registrants to adhere to certain standards. Also, registration will need renewing, i.e. annually, and there is a cost.
Criminal records checks
Dental nurses must undergo a criminal record check, as they may come into contact with children and vulnerable adults.
A criminal record, caution, warning, or conviction may put off prospective employers. It can even affect GDC registration. However, employers should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance.
The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
- England and Wales – Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Northern Ireland – AccessNI.
- Scotland – Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme.
Some dental nursing roles may require individuals to have health clearance for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C or HIV.
Some dental nurses will be required to drive as part of their role, especially when working in the community or as a locum. Therefore, they should have a full clean driving licence.
Where do dental nurses work?
Dental nurses can work in many different settings, including (this list is not exhaustive):
- Hospitals, e.g. private or NHS.
- Specialist health centres.
- Dental practices/studios/centres/clinics.
- GP surgeries.
- Orthodontic centres.
- Residential care homes and nursing homes.
- Military bases and barracks.
- Overseas, i.e. the armed forces.
- Patients’ homes.
- In the community, i.e. mobile.
Most dental nurse opportunities are with private practices. Individuals can also work for other organisations, for example:
- The Civil Service.
- Private hospitals, e.g. Bupa and Nuffield Health.
- The NHS.
- Charities, e.g. hospices.
- The armed forces, e.g. the RAF, Royal Navy or Army.
- HM Prison Service.
They can also be self-employed and work as a locum or for a dental agency.
Most dental nurse opportunities tend to be in cities and large towns. However, there are some practices in rural areas.
How much do dental nurses earn?
If a dental nurse works for the NHS, their salary is subject to a band pay system (agenda for change pay rates).
For example (these are a guide only and are subject to change):
- Starting salary (between band 3 & 4) – £22,816–£27,596 per year.
- Senior or specialist dental nurse (band 5) – £28,407–£34,581 per year.
The exact salaries for dental nurses will depend on the role, location, specialisms, qualifications and years of experience. As individuals progress in their careers, there may be opportunities to enter more senior positions, and the band will increase.
There is potential for dental nurses to earn more if they work in other settings, e.g. private practice or if working as a locum.
Some examples of average salaries are as follows:
- £21,730 starter to £32,934 experienced per year (National Careers Service).
- £22,982 per year (Glassdoor).
- £24,129 per year (Talent.com).
- £24,327.77 per year (Check-a-Salary).
- £11.83 per hour (Indeed UK).
Types of dental nursing to specialise in
Not only are there opportunities for dental nurses to move up the career ladder and work in various locations, but there are also many different roles in which they can specialise.
- General dental nursing – working in dental practices, e.g. on the high street, and supporting NHS and/or private dental care and treatments.
- Community dental nursing – working in the community where vulnerable patients cannot get to practices, e.g. patients’ homes, nursing homes and clinics. They are more mobile than other dental nurses.
- Hospital dental nursing – working in hospitals, usually in specialist areas and supporting dentists who carry out complex treatments, e.g. oral surgery.
- Armed forces dental nursing – working in the RAF, Royal Navy or Army in the UK or overseas.
In addition to the above roles, dental nurses can also support dentists in specialist areas, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- Endodontics – specialising in root canals, dental pulp and surrounding tissue.
- Implantology – specialising in dental implants.
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery – specialising in diseases affecting the mouth, jaw, face and neck.
- Orthodontics – specialising in teeth, jaw and bite irregularities and fitting braces and retainers.
- Paediatric dentistry – specialising in providing dental care and treatment to children and young people.
- Periodontics – specialising in diseases and disorders of the gums.
- Prosthodontics – specialising in restoring and replacing missing teeth, e.g. with crowns, bridges, partial dentures and dentures.
- Radiography – specialising in taking intra-oral and extra-oral radiographs of patients.
- Restorative dentistry – specialising in three areas: endodontics, periodontics and prosthodontics.
- Sedation – specialising in administering sedative drugs to help patients with phobias and anxieties.
All different dental nursing roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. Some may need specific qualifications and training for specialised areas. All dental nurses will need to have knowledge of dental care techniques and assistance methods, be able to reassure patients and follow dentists’ instructions, and maintain patients’ dental records. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for in a dental nurse (if employed) and the type of work a dental nurse wants.
If dental nurses do not carry out their roles effectively, it may result in pain for patients and can make them more anxious. In some cases, errors may even cost lives, i.e. if infection control is poor, it can make patients ill. Therefore, whatever the type of role, dental nurses must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency and not carry out tasks if they have not been trained and are not competent.
Standards, techniques, technologies, equipment and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, dental nurses must keep ahead of the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and carry out their roles effectively and safely. CPD gives dental nurses the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them stay registered with the GDC and progress in their career.
Joining a professional body, society or association (as mentioned previously) can help prospective and current dental nurses enhance their skills and overall career. These can offer different levels of membership, CPD, access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression within dental nursing, as it is a diverse field. With more qualifications and experience, an individual can become a hospital or armed forces dental nurse and even a lead or senior dental nurse.
They can focus on a specific area, such as sedation, fluoride varnish application or radiography. They could move into a team leader, manager or dental practice manager position. Alternatively, they may become a locum or work for a dental recruitment agency.
Knowledge, skills and experience in dental nursing can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a dental nurse may decide to do further training to become a dental hygienist, a dental therapist, an orthodontic therapist or an oral health educator.
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