If You Can't Get A Dentist Right Now, Here's Why

People are resorting to DIY dentistry – with disastrous results.
Around 3,000 dentists have moved away from NHS work since the first lockdown back in March 2020
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Around 3,000 dentists have moved away from NHS work since the first lockdown back in March 2020

It’s pretty tough trying to book an NHS dentist appointment right now – and it’s not likely to get any easier unless the government intervenes, according to those working in the industry.

Around 3,000 dentists have moved away from NHS work since the first lockdown back in March 2020, meaning there are not enough people working to see all the patients.

As concern over the future of UK dentistry spikes, here’s what you need to know.

What do the latest findings say?

NHS dental treatment is not free for most adults, but it does mean the bill is subsided, so the patients only pay part of the price.

The British Dental Association (BDA) and the BBC have identified 8,533 UK dental practices believed to hold NHS contracts, and attempted to contact them all.

BDA called it “the most comprehensive and granular assessment of patient access in the history of the service”.

In its survey, it found that 91% of NHS practices in England were not accepting new adult patients.

This rises to 97% in the East Midlands and 98% in South West, North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber. London emerged as the best region for access to dental care, with close to a quarter of practices were accepting new adult patients for the NHS.

Among the practices not taking new adult patients in England, most do not even have waiting lists set up. Around 23% said they had an open waiting list while 16% said the wait time was a year or longer, or could not predict how long it would take.

Around 90% of NHS practices were not taking new adult patients in Northern Ireland. This number rose to 93% in Wales and dropped to 82% in Scotland.

The survey also found 79% of NHS practices were not accepting new child patients.

What does this mean for dental care?

Many people cannot afford private treatment, so end up performing “DIY dentistry”.

The BBC reported some people have been pulling out their own teeth without anaesthesia, making their own dentures or driving hundreds of miles to look for treatment.

The chair of the BDA’s general dental practice committee, Shawn Charlwood, said: “NHS dentistry is at a tipping point, with millions unable to get the care they need and more dentists leaving with every day that passes.”

BBC health correspondent Nick Triggle claimed: “It’s fair to say the difficulties patients are facing are unprecedented.”

Why has this happened?

Charlwood said UK dentistry was struggling due to “years of chronic neglect” through austerity, and extra pressures from the pandemic.

Dentistry was also only free for the first three years of the NHS, so until 1951, because it was unaffordable, and a subsided service has been in place since.

Many of the UK’s NHS dentists are actually not employed by the health service directly, but are independent businesses who take on NHS contracts.

These contracts, in place since 2006 for England and Wales, are being blamed by the BDA for leaving dentists feeling unrewarded for their work.

If the dentists don’t fulfil their obligations within these contracts, the money they have been paid is taken back.

BDA board member Paul Woodhouse also told BBC Breakfast that the government was offering only 50% of the funding the UK needed to care for every patient.

How has the government responded?

The BDA has called for direct intervention from ministers, saying “nothing we’ve heard from government to date gives us any confidence this service has a future”.

It warns that the NHS dentistry will die without reform, and “our patients will pay the price”.

A spokesperson from the health and social care department said: “Improving patient access to NHS dental care is a government priority and the new reforms to the dental contract announced last month are an important step.”

They claimed this would allow “the best performing practices” to see more patients, and make better use of professionals’ expertise.

“The NHS commits around £3bn to dentistry each year and have made an extra £50m to help bust the Covid backlogs, building on the unprecedented £1.7bn support we provided during the pandemic.”

NHS England also says it has recently made changes to the contract and would “support practices to improve access, including giving high-performing practices the opportunity to increase their activity and treat more patients”.