Some children are struggling to access NHS dental care and risk being left in pain as dentists grapple with the backlog built up during the coronavirus pandemic, leading organisations have warned.
NHS dental care risks “vanishing into the void” as limited funds mean that dentists are struggling to offer services to all that need them, the British Dental Association (BDA) and Healthwatch England said.
Four in five patients, including children, who contacted Healthwatch about issues in dentistry have struggled to access timely care.
There have been 30 million fewer dentist appointments than expected since the first lockdown and dental services will continue to feel the impact of the pandemic for “years to come”, they added as they called on the Treasury to take action in the forthcoming spending review.
But they said patient fees should not be increased to balance the books.
The organisations warned that fees – paid by adult patients unless they have certain exemptions – have “morphed into a substitute for meaningful state investment”.
But these charges have hit those on modest incomes “hardest”, they added.
It comes after Healthwatch England warned that some people will need to wait for up to three years for dental care while patients reported pulling out their own teeth or being told to use “DIY filling kits”.
The letter from Sir Robert Francis QC, chair of Healthwatch England, and BDA chair Eddie Crouch states: “NHS dentistry faces an unprecedented backlog – the initial suspension of face-to-face care, and ongoing restrictions mean over 30 million appointments have been lost since lockdown, and patients and the NHS will be feeling the impact for years to come.
Dentistry has risen to be the number one issue raised with Healthwatch over the last 18 months, and the volume of feedback continues to grow. From April to June 2021 feedback was up 55% on the previous three months, and 794% higher when compared with the same period in 2020.
Nearly four in five people (79%) of those sharing their stories said they had found it difficult to access timely care. The coming spending review is an opportunity to determine the shape of any recovery plan.
“Even before Covid, England lacked an NHS dental service capable of meeting patients’ needs. Now the pressures of the pandemic mean ongoing access problems, widening health inequalities, and many dental team members reconsidering their futures in the NHS.
“The service is now at risk of a double whammy of increased demand and reduced supply.”
They continued: “In 2015 commitments to annual inflation-busting increases in patient charges served as a real barrier to patients on modest incomes.
“With flatlining budgets, what has been dubbed ‘contributions’ has morphed into a substitute for meaningful state investment.”
On funding high street dental services, they added that “no attempt has been made to keep pace with either inflation or population growth”.
They added: “Patients deserve an adequately funded system that delivers dental care for all those who need it.
“It is crucial that further increases in patient charges are not used to help balance the books, and that funds are in place to guarantee the research required to measure and meet patient demand.”
Commenting, Sir Robert said: “Lack of access to NHS dentistry has exploded as an issue for people over the last year, with both the volume of feedback and negative sentiment going through the roof. We’ve heard from patients up and down the country unable to find care, leaving them in pain and taking matters into their own hands.
“We’ve also heard from parents unable to register their children with an NHS dentist, as local dental practices weren’t taking on new patients, had gone private or had closed down. Every part of the country is facing a dental care crisis, with NHS dentistry at risk of vanishing into the void.
“The Government needs to use the forthcoming spending review to provide vital investment in services like dentistry that help keep us all healthy and ensure we build back better for current and future generations.”
Mr Crouch said: “In the last spending review ministers chose to make patients pay more into NHS dentistry, so they could pay less.
“These charges are now a substitute for decent state investment, with no attempt to even try and keep pace with demand or inflation. Ministers have pledged reform. Simply telling dentists to do more with less will not provide the care our patients desperately need.”