Letters written to The Mail on Sunday last week have revealed the decaying state of NHS dentistry in the UK today.
Pensioners are being forced to pay for private care at the dental practice they’ve been going to for 30 years as an NHS patient.
Vulnerable patients who’ve been self-isolating during the pandemic are being told they have ‘lost their NHS status’ because they haven’t been making regular appointments.
And some are facing three-year waits for check-ups on children’s teeth, with emergency care unavailable.
Our resident GP Dr Ellie Cannon asked you to write in about your recent experiences accessing a dentist, and the response has painted a disturbing picture.
The sheer frustration is palpable, as one put it: ‘No treatment, no contact, “sorry, it’s Covid”. Bulls***. Give me the pliers.’
For many years, access to NHS dentists has been a postcode lottery, but today patient watchdog Healthwatch England says problems exist ‘in every corner of England with four in five people struggling to access care, including in an emergency’.
Pensioners are being forced to pay for private care at the dental practice they’ve been going to for 30 years as an NHS patient, shocking letters to the Mail on Sunday reveal. (stock image)
Healthwatch England chairman Sir Robert Francis QC also warned that huge swathes of the country are now ‘dental deserts’ with no dentists taking on new NHS patients.
According to the latest research by the British Dental Association, about 40 million fewer courses of dental treatment have been delivered since March 2020 compared with before Covid. And the situation could get worse.
The number of NHS dentists has plunged to its lowest in a decade to about 22,000, with nearly 1,000 leaving during the past year.
A further 40 per cent are said to be looking to change career or seek early retirement in the next 12 months.
It means NHS dentists are, to use the expression, becoming as rare as hens’ teeth.
But while the Government has pledged a further £50 million for up to 350,000 extra appointments, dentists say it won’t solve the crisis – and as ever, it’s the most vulnerable who are worst affected.
Some of the stories we received were appalling and revealed the serious impact of a lack of dental care.
Tony Harvey, from Pwllheli in Gwynedd, North Wales, nearly died after developing sepsis from untreated tooth infections.
‘I repeatedly made dental appointments which were six months in the future, then a couple of weeks beforehand they’d be cancelled,’ he wrote.
‘A month ago, I collapsed and spent eight days in hospital. They found a large abscess under two of my teeth.
‘The pain was masked because I take strong painkillers for another medical condition. I was told I was close to not making it.’
Vulnerable patients who’ve been self-isolating during the pandemic are being told they have ‘lost their NHS status’ because they haven’t been making regular appointments. (Stock image)
One 42-year-old in Cambridgeshire rang NHS 111 in agony with a persistent abscess in her jaw, which had caused her neck to swell.
The call-handler said it was an emergency and she had to be seen within 12 hours because of the risk of sepsis.
But despite calling about 20 dental practices – none of which was taking new patients – she was forced to pay nearly £500 to see a private dentist 16 miles away.
She wrote: ‘They said they’d had a lot of these calls, and that my only option was to just ring around or pay privately.
‘I’ve been told my kids will have to wait three years for a check-up.
‘My own follow-up appointment was cancelled the day before and the practice said seven dentists had just left – so, even privately, I’ll have to wait five months for them to investigate a “shadow” the X-ray found in my jaw.’
Janett Thornalley from Alford, Lincolnshire, was told by her dental practice that she had ‘lost her NHS status’ after not making appointments while self-isolating during the worst of the pandemic.
The 82-year-old, who lives alone, was told she could still be seen – if she paid privately.
‘I certainly wasn’t paying them after being so let down, and as a single pensioner I have to be careful with my expenditure,’ she said.
‘Goodness knows how many more have been caught in this disgraceful trap.’
Jane Sagar, 72, uses a mobility scooter to get around after two hip replacements, but has to travel to Shrewsbury, 18 miles from her home in Oswestry, Shropshire, after her NHS dentist closed.
‘I’ve had to pay nearly £500 for two fillings and an extraction, which I’m not very pleased about,’ she said. The NHS charges patients £65.20 per filling and extraction.
There is understandable anger from patients at a situation which means they can be seen privately – for inflated sums – in the same clinic where they are denied NHS care.
But as one dentist explained to The Mail on Sunday, practices often have no spare NHS capacity.
As independent contractors, each has a quota of NHS procedures they can be paid for.
Once they hit this quota, they will not be paid for any extra NHS work.
The dentist, who runs a large practice in the North West mainly treating NHS patients, said: ‘The Covid backlog means people are turning up with more severe problems, which take longer to address, but the way our contract works means we get paid the same whether we give that person one filling or ten.
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‘New patients generally require more work, so you can see why some practices don’t want to take them on – they’re not cost-effective.
‘With more complex cases we can fit in fewer bookings, we’re being paid less overall, and because dentists are leaving there are fewer of us to do the work.
‘That’s why there are problems accessing care.
‘People think we charge privately to make more money, but if we don’t we can’t keep our businesses afloat – there would be no dentists left.
‘The vast majority of dentists leave to run private clinics not for the money, but because there are no targets, no quotas and they can spend longer with patients.’
A pilot scheme to evaluate a new NHS dental contract, being run in a small group of practices for the past 11 years, was recently abandoned.
Shawn Charlwood, from the British Dental Association, said: ‘The current contract is failing, which means a growing number of dentists are seeking to reduce their NHS commitment or leave the health service altogether.
‘It puts targets ahead of patient care, and for too long we’ve been underfunded and overstretched.
‘The £50 million announced to address this is bonkers because it has to be used by the end of March – and we don’t have time to run the extra clinics.
‘I fear for patients trying to access care and I fear for the service, which is being allowed to wither on the vine.
‘We’re constantly asking the Government what they’re going to do about it – and they won’t tell us anything.’
For patients, however, the situation seems clear.
‘It is obvious that dental care is now a commodity and a money-making business,’ said Janett Thornalley.
‘Patient needs are secondary. The next generations are already being penalised with a future of poor dental health, as it is not going to be affordable.’