Medical Assistant vs Dental Assistant: how to decide what's right for me?

By - Rachel
10.27.2022 12:35 PM

Medical assistant and dental assistant training are two educational tracks approved for MyCAA financial assistance. The roles of both a medical and dental assistant support a licensed doctor, such as a medical physician or a dentist. The differences between the two roles are important to understand when deciding which career path is right for you.

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants work alongside healthcare professionals in hospitals, urgent care centers, doctor’s offices, and other medical settings. A person in this role may be responsible for both clinical and administrative duties depending on the location and medical professional’s needs.

What is a Medical Assistant responsible for?

The following are some of the main responsibilities of a medical assistant:

  • Patient intake: taking vitals, checking temperature, blood pressure, and pulse

  • Logging vitals in patients’ charts

  • Assisting physicians with exams and procedures

  • Appointment scheduling

  • Collecting patient specimens needed to process lab tests

  • Preparing rooms for patients by sanitizing surfaces and checking supply inventory


Medical Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner

While medical assistants have some similar responsibilities to nurse practitioners, they are not the same role. The biggest difference between medical assistants and registered nurses (RNs) is the level of care they are able to provide for patients. Medical assistants are more responsible for scheduling and clerical tasks while nurse practitioners are more directly involved with patient care. 


The level of education required to become a medical assistant differs significantly from that of a nurse. Requirements vary by location, but in general, it takes more time, training, and accreditation to become a nurse practitioner than a medical assistant. 

Medical Assistant salary and job outlook

According to Indeed, the average base salary for a medical assistant in the United States is $20.03 per hour and $46,630 per year. Salaries tend to increase with experience, but entry-level medical assistants still average $43,600 a year. 


Salaries can also vary for medical assistants depending on the specialty of the medical practice where they are employed. Medical assistants working in cath labs, physical and rehabilitation medicine, radiology, and surgery settings tend to have higher salaries than average.


As of 2021, there were over 740,000 medical assistant jobs in the United States. This career path is growing much faster than average, with a 16% projected growth over the next decade.


What is a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants work with dentists to promote oral health and treat issues related to a patient’s teeth, mouth, and jaw. The work environment is typically a dentist’s office and responsibilities include both direct patient assistance and administrative duties.

What are Dental Assistant's responsibilities?

Responsibilities of a dental assistant can include:

  • Patient, instrument, and procedure prep

  • Processing patient mouth and jaw x-rays

  • Maintaining patient records

  • Billing and payment processing as well as communication with patient insurance companies

  • Managing inventory organization and supply orders

  • Patient education on proper oral hygiene


Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

Both dental assistants and hygienists work under the supervision of a dentist, but have a few key differences in training and responsibilities. While dental assistants often assist with some tasks related to patient care, hygienists are able to work without the supervision of a dentist. Hygienists typically assess a patient in the exam room before the dentist performs their examination. 


Dental hygienists often need more education and employment experience than dental assistants. Dental assistants require specific certifications while hygienists need licenses.

Dental Assistant salary and job outlook

As of 2021, the median pay for dental assistants in the United States is $38,660 per year and $18.59 per hour. There are 358,000 dental assistant jobs and this career path is expected to grow by 8% over the next ten years.


What do the roles of Medical and Dental Assistants have in common?

Career choices of either medical or dental assistant generally include the following benefits: 

  • 401(k) and 401(k) matching

  • Health and dental insurance coverage

  • Flexible schedule

  • Life insurance coverage

  • Paid sick time

  • Paid time off

  • Parental leave

  • Professional development assistance


Both paths require a postsecondary nondegree award and the workforce is expected to continue growing over the next decade. Training to become a medical or dental assistant would grant someone access to a portable career path that could easily be transferred to different locations, such as active duty military spouses.

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: What are the differences?

Besides the basic skills and technical knowledge that differs between the two career paths, there are several other differences to be aware of.


The average salary of medical assistants is about $20,000 higher per year than those of dental assistants. Additionally, the job outlook for medical assistants is growing year over year at a faster pace than that of dental assistants.


The work environment and hours differ between medical and dental assistants as well. While medical assistants may be required to work overtime and on nights, weekends, or holidays, dental assistants generally have a more consistent 9-to-5 schedule.

Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: Which has a Better Career Outlook?

Choosing between becoming a medical or dental assistant requires examining your personal and career-related goals. Higher financial compensation could be a driving factor for choosing to become a medical assistant. A more consistent schedule and the freedom to have weekends and holidays off could inspire a person to choose the dental assistant tract.


Both medical and dental assistant careers offer individuals access to the professional healthcare industry and may allow opportunities for career advancement.


Frequently Asked Questions

Does a Medical Assistant or Dental Assistant have a board exam?

Exams for becoming a medical assistant or a dental assistant can be quite demanding. Both exams have a timed element that requires expediency. The Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) exam has 200 questions and you get about 160 minutes to answer them. The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam is out of a possible 900 points and the passing score is 400.

Is a math background needed to become a Medical or Dental Assistant?

Most dental assistant or medical assistant certificate programs don’t require a math or chemistry background. It’s good to understand some basic metrics, fractions, and percentages.

Is it harder to become a Medical Assistant or a Dental Assistant?

Both assistant roles demand a learning curve and on the job training. Medical assistants typically come in two varieties, administrative and clinical. Dental assistants are required to perform clinical and administrative duties themselves. Dental assistants must have technical training in order to initially get the job.


Want to learn more about these career paths? Take a look at our healthcare certification courses and learn about the many specializations and career paths available through these programs.