Why we need a plan to 'level up' oral health and fight regional inequalities
Analysis of health data conducted by the Wrigley Oral Healthcare Programme has found significant oral health disparities across the country. To tackle the problem and avoid worsening inequalities, the nation needs a plan to level up oral health, improve access to dental care and increase education around preventative methods.
Living through the pandemic has taught us the importance of looking after the nation’s health. The Government’s ambition to ‘level up’ our health is both timely and critical and will require a coordinated approach across the health system. Promoting good oral health is a key part of this – poor oral health outcomes often indicate poor overall health outcomes for individuals.
Disruption caused by the pandemic has taken a toll on our oral health – with existing inequalities exacerbated. Despite the incredible efforts of the dental industry to ensure patients can access care, they continue to face huge backlogs. Over 35 million NHS dental appointments have been lost due to the pandemic and 80% of patients found it difficult to access timely dental care.
Yorkshire and Humber have 75% higher levels of extractions and the North West and North East both experience 50% higher levels than the national average
Analysis of Public Health England data conducted by the Wrigley Oral Healthcare Programme (WOHP) has found significant oral health disparities across the country. Using an indicator of hospital tooth extractions as a percentage of the population of 0–19-year-olds, the research found considerable variation across Local Authorities. At the point people require hospital extractions, they are likely to have progressed to very late stages of poor oral health.
The research found that the England-wide number of tooth extractions as a percentage of the population of 0-19-year-olds is 0.4%. Concerningly, some regions have significantly higher levels of extractions – Yorkshire and Humber have 75% higher levels of extractions and the North West and North East both experience 50% higher levels than the national average. There is also variation in outcomes within regions, with some Local Authorities performing significantly worse than others within regions – the South West in particular experiences high levels of variation.
Click to expand: A map showing oral health disparities by local authority in England.
Given the pressure on dental practices, preventative measures have never been more important. Brushing your teeth twice a day is crucial, as is using additional oral health tools like flossing. There are also accessible interventions like chewing sugarfree gum, which can play an important role in helping to prevent cavities and protect your teeth. A 2019 systematic review by King’s College London demonstrated that chewing sugarfree gum reduced cavities by 28%.
To tackle the backlog and prevent worsening inequalities, the nation will need a plan for levelling up the oral health of regions with poor outcomes. This could include improving access to dental care and increased education around preventative oral methods. Preventative measures will play a crucial role in the coming years to support the dental industry in tackling the backlog. Education around prevention will be critical to levelling up the nation’s oral health, and WOHP stands ready to support these efforts.
Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View
The pandemic has opened our eyes to the link between inequality and health outcomes – with socio-economic inequalities clearly linked to poorer outcomes. Oral health is no exception, with inequalities being exacerbated by the pandemic.
At the same time, the dental industry is facing growing waiting lists while simultaneously dealing with an exodus of dental professionals from the NHS – data from the Department of Health found that almost 1,000 dentists working in 2,500 roles across England and Wales left the NHS last year.
In the South West region, where my constituency is based, there are worse oral health outcomes than average in England, according to the PHE data analysed by the Wrigley Oral Healthcare Programme. The region also has the highest levels of variation in outcomes, demonstrating a need to rethink how we approach policies to improve oral health outcomes.
The South West region has the highest levels of variation in oral health outcomes, demonstrating a need to rethink how we approach policies to improve oral health outcomes
Prevention will clearly need to play a key role in this. With the dental industry facing huge pressures, we must look to solutions to prevent the situation from worsening and support communities across the nation to look after their teeth.
Image: A map showing oral health disparities by local authority in South West England.
In my constituency, there have been some excellent initiatives driving this agenda, with the Peninsula Dental School running programmes to educate children around a healthy dental routine. There are ongoing community engagement initiatives to promote the importance of looking after your oral health, including excellent work by Plymouth University to meet the dentistry needs of our most vulnerable and least accessible parts of society. Initiatives like these will be crucial to tackle oral health inequalities in the coming years, while we support the dental industry to recover.
We owe it to our constituents to ensure that their oral health doesn’t take a further hit and that areas with worse outcomes are supported to improve. My party talks about levelling up, but it’s time to put that into action – health disparities, including those in oral health, must be addressed.
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