NHS dentistry is in crisis as an exodus of dentists has left many without access to treatment
This time last year, it was reported that there was a 22 per cent increase in complaints about NHS dental care. From the sheer cost of treatment to the lack of availability of appointments, people are sick to their back teeth that the mere fact of maintaining good oral hygiene is seemingly a luxury out of reach for many.
Last year, one constituent wrote to me saying: “Dentists are often the first people to spot signs of cancers and diabetes and as I am sure you know, an infection in the mouth can spread throughout the body and cause serious harm. Yet, if you cannot afford the often-extortionate amounts for private dentistry, you are now locked out of anything but emergency treatment”.
Like all NHS staff, dentists provide an excellent service for an overwhelming majority of people and I am incredibly grateful to our dental workforce and the NHS for all that they do. I am also thankful to the British Dental Association for their tireless campaigning to raise awareness of the issue of access for all.
Increasingly though, dental practices have stopped providing NHS services, meaning that many are left struggling to pay the costs of their treatment through private providers.
We’re now standing at the cliff edge of a complete crisis in dentist retention
Indeed, while there are still NHS-run dental practices, the numbers on waiting lists are mounting. Last year, I tabled three separate written parliamentary questions regarding people on waiting lists for an NHS dentist in Stockport, in the North West region, and in England. Unfortunately, the government stonewalled me with the same response: that the data isn’t held centrally.
To give you a sense of the scale of the crisis in the area that I represent, 22 per cent of children under five in Stockport have reported experiencing tooth decay, considerably higher than the rest of the country. In addition, in the last reported year 300 children in Stockport had teeth extracted under a general anaesthetic in a hospital due to tooth decay. While in the latest GP patient survey, 14 per cent of adults surveyed in the Stockport clinical commissioning group area said they had not even attempted to secure an appointment with an NHS dentist in the past two years because they assumed that none would be available.
Unsurprisingly, waiting list numbers have worsened since the onset of the pandemic. In Prime Minister’s Questions recently, Boris Johnson responded to my question on this issue by stating that “One of the troubles we have had during lockdown is that people have not been going – there are 10 million unfilled fillings, I am told.”
Perhaps inadvertently, the Prime Minister admitted to there being a problem with access to dental services. Worryingly, this already unacceptable situation is likely to deteriorate further, and we’re now standing at the cliff edge of a complete crisis in dentist retention. Clive Lewis MP made this very point in a Westminster Hall debate last year, when he noted that more than a third of dentists plan a career change or early retirement in the next 12 months.
That is hugely concerning and will result in the dental profession haemorrhaging skills and knowledge, further weakening the NHS dentistry sector.
Underfunding is the basis of many long-term problems, with the data on the number of practices providing NHS dentistry making depressing reading. The British Dental Association has reported that the number of practices providing NHS dentistry fell by more than 1,200 in the past five years. Adding the pandemic to this equation means that the nation is facing an exodus of dentists from the NHS.
It is therefore high time the government acts to address this issue and their reforms must be meaningful and expand access to NHS dentists across the country, so that everyone – including the most vulnerable in our communities – has access to an NHS dentist, within a reasonable distance and timescale, and no longer faces the prospect of being priced out of treatment.
Navendu Mishra is the Labour MP for Stockport.
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