Healthwatch warns of dentistry crisis as public concerns continue

New data gathered by Healthwatch England shows access to NHS dentistry remains a huge problem for the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dentist with special glasses

Healthwatch England is warning urgent action is needed to address issues with access to NHS dental care as public concerns persist. 

Healthwatch continues to hear concerns about dentistry which were highlighted at the end of last year in the Dentistry and the impact of COVID-19 report after the patient champion saw a 452% rise in calls and complaints over the summer (July – September). 

In a follow-up review, Healthwatch looked at 1,129 people’s experiences of accessing dental care received between October and December 2020 and found:  

  • Access to dentistry was difficult for more than seven in 10 people (72%), with some people actively seeking dental treatment being told they would have to wait anywhere between a few months to, in one case, two years for an appointment.  
  • Access to urgent NHS treatment was difficult for both people with painful teeth, with patients being told that dental pain was not considered an “emergency”, and those who were prescribed multiple courses of antibiotics by NHS111 without being provided any further treatment.  
  • Examples of the extreme lengths some people went to, to get treatment, including calling over 40 practices to find an NHS dentist, and pulling their own teeth out when they couldn’t bear the pain.  
  • When dentists couldn’t offer an appointment, they advised people to buy dental repair kits to treat themselves. In one case, an individual was advised to use a nail file to deal with the sharp edges of a broken tooth. 

The findings come after some MPs and the British Dental Association called on the Government to scrap its new targets for NHS dentists, which require them to deliver 45% of their pre-pandemic levels of dental activity. 

There are concerns this is likely to push practices into prioritising appointments such as check-ups over emergency or more complex longer treatments. 

Healthwatch England previously called for more emphasis to be placed on solving structural issues within NHS dental services and warns dental care is facing an immediate crisis without the Government stepping up to the plate.  

Our findings show that access to dental care is currently neither equal nor inclusive, leading to traumatic experiences for many people. This provides yet more evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the human impact of years of structural issues in NHS dentistry and is now pushing it to crisis point. In the longer term, the Department of Health and Social Care must prioritise the importance of oral health and commit to improving access to dentistry for everyone who needs it.
— Sir Robert Francis QC, Chair of Healthwatch England

Dental findings: affordability  

Healthwatch’s findings also suggest that patients are being told that although NHS appointments are not available, they can be treated privately. This creates a real barrier for everyone, and in particular for people on low income, to receive vital treatment. 

While one individual was charged £500 for an extraction of a single tooth, another person was offered a procedure for £1,700, which was £60 on the NHS.  

A Swindon resident disclosed to Healthwatch Swindon the struggles dentistry in the pandemic had caused with both their health and finances. Sharing the only emergency treatment available was to remove teeth, but not to attend to the issue.

“I can get emergency treatment but only to pull teeth, they won’t see me to fix problems. It's very frustrating as if I could pay private they can see me. The work I need doing would mean putting myself into debt if I went private, which will impact my mental health.”

Dental findings: the impact of COVID-19  

Communication between dental providers and patients also remains an issue, with some people being unable to find information about which local NHS dentists have started to do routine check-ups and if any are taking on new NHS patients following closures during the first lockdown.  

Dentists’ appointments were cancelled without notifying the patients or providing them with any information about when they could reschedule their visit. 

Commenting on the struggle to find an NHS dentist in Swindon, one respondent said,

“I’m currently trying to find a dentist in Swindon that is taking on NHS patients. Unfortunately after contacting five to six different practices, they have all come back saying that they are not taking on NHS patients, but are private... which I find bizarre.”

Some appointments were cancelled as dentists were unable to provide safe care without adequate PPE. Healthwatch Havering found out that one in four dental practices in their area were charging extra for PPE.  

Overall figures show nearly three in five people (58%) expressed negative sentiments about dentistry, compared with one in two (51%) in the previous three months. There was however a noticeable increase in the amount of positive feedback about dentistry, with just over one in 10 (12%) saying something positive, compared with one in 25 (four percent) between July and Sept 2020. 

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