The number of dentists leaving the NHS in favour of private work continues to rise – according to the BBC, almost 1,000 dentists across 2,500 roles left the NHS in England and Wales last year1. Among contract disputes and the temptations of private work, the pressures created by the pandemic’s backlog of lost appointments is also driving dentists away, it seems. The impact of this is that millions of dental patients across the UK are struggling to access NHS dental treatment.
BBC News recently released an article focusing on patients that are facing two-year waits for check-ups, as NHS Dentistry is described by the British Dental Association as “hanging by a thread”1. Whilst this is a difficult time for dentists, who are tackling the depleting numbers and the backlog of appointments, it also raises serious concerns for the dental health of patients who are losing access to the treatment they need.
In response to the backlog, NHS England has said that 350,000 extra dental appointments are to be made available – running into the evening and throughout the weekend – alongside a £50m funding pot1. However, the Guardian has stated that this is merely a ‘drop in the ocean’2, as NHS figures for the year ending March 2021 showed a drop of 68% in courses of treatment delivered, with an estimated 38 million appointments lost since the start of the pandemic. 2
In the BBC’s article they revealed that the worst-affected area in the UK was Clinical Commissioning Group NHS Portsmouth, which lost 26% of its dentists last year, and at least 10% of NHS dentists were lost in 28 other English CCGs. As a result of this shortage of NHS dentists, and with the impact of the pandemic, patients have suffered with ongoing issues that are left to develop without access to treatment.
Matthew Drake, 30, told the BBC about his difficulty in finding an NHS dentists when his gums became infected last summer. Despite being in a substantial amount of pain, he was eventually refused treatment from an emergency out-of-hours practice as he was told he did not qualify for treatment. He eventually used all his savings to pay for private treatment.
Also reported by the BBC, 28-year-old Pamela Carr described her search for an NHS dentist to fix her root canal since November 2020 – stating “I’ve become used to the pain”. There are thousands of patients in the same position as Pamela, who rely on the NHS for their treatment; “I can’t afford the private care, and I’ve tried every practice within 30 miles. I phoned NHS England too”.
The increase in funding and available appointments announced by the NHS is promising news for patients who are waiting to be treated, however the pressure on the government to improve access to dental treatment continues to grow. For those who can’t afford private treatment, the combination of the backlog induced by the pandemic, and depleting number of NHS dentists is concerning for their dental, and overall, health and wellbeing.