People are being told to wait until 2024 for dentist appointments while others are being removed from their practice lists for not making appointments sooner, according to a damning new report into the state of dentistry.
Dental surgeries have reported that they have “thousands” of people on their waiting lists, while patients are unable to access care after ringing round numerous dental surgeries, a watchdog has warned.
Delays have resulted in the worsening of painful symptoms and in one instance even led to a patient needing hospital treatment after they overdosed on painkillers, it said.
But Healthwatch England said that some people are being offered swift private care as an alternative at the same dental practice, with some patients reporting that they felt “pressured” to pay for private care.
Some practices appeared to be “prioritising” private care, it added.
Healthwatch England’s latest report on the state of dentistry in the UK, shared with the PA news agency, highlights a number of issues in affordability and access, including:
- People “removed” from the practice list for not making an appointment sooner
- Repeated cancelled appointments – even mid-way through treatment
- Dentists have reported that they have “thousands” of people on their waiting lists, with some patients claiming they are unable to even get on a waiting list
- Dentists shutting down or “going completely private”
- Patients being asked to wait up to three years for appointments – or six weeks for emergency care
- Some who called NHS 111 seeking emergency dental care were told to “use salt water” and carry on calling practices until they could find help
- Other patients have been told to use DIY filling kits while they wait for an appointment
- People being increasingly prescribed antibiotics with no prospect of a follow-up appointment to actually treat the problem
“People have felt pressured to go private as dentists said that they couldn’t provide NHS treatments but were able to if people were willing to pay private fees,” the Healthwatch report states.
It adds: “People were unable to make an appointment with their regular dental practice because they were removed from the practice list for not making an appointment sooner.
“They only became aware of this when they tried to book an appointment as they had never received any notification about it. Some were unable to find another practice taking new NHS patients, so they ended up paying privately to be able to see a dentist.”
Gwen Leeming from Brighton suffered for two years with infections in two of her back teeth.
But when she tried to get help from her NHS dentist, she was told that her practice was now only providing private appointments.
It took her six months to get dental care but she had to travel an hour away for her appointment after being unable to get help from any NHS dentists in Brighton.
“I am a 72-year-old who has worked and paid national insurance for over 50 years, so I can’t get health insurance any longer,” the former administrator for a research institute said.
“As I live on limited income, which is supplemented by housing benefit, I can’t afford extra costs like private dental care.
“I’m one of the many victims of our broken dental care system. It particularly is failing older patients who suffered, indeed still suffer, from the impact of 1960s’ school dentists.”
Healthwatch England conducted a review of 1,375 people’s experiences shared with its local teams and found that some people had been asked to wait for three years for an NHS dentist appointment, but were told that private care could be available within a week.
The watchdog warned that even when people can get access to dental care on the health service, three fifths (61 per cent) of people deem treatment too “expensive”.
While some people get access to free dental care – including children, pregnant women and those receiving income benefit support – many need to pay rates of between £23.80 for routine treatment to £282.80 for more complex care.
Healthwatch England said that some people are avoiding treatment because they cannot afford the cost. It said that there is a “twin crisis” of access and affordability.
Data from the organisation suggests that 80 per cent of people who contacted it in the first three months of the year said they had struggled to access timely care.
The number of complaints about dentistry rose by 22 per cent during the first three months of 2021 compared with the preceding three months, it added.
It also conducted a poll of 2,000 people’s experiences with dental care in England.
One-quarter (27 per cent) said they either struggle to pay or avoid dental treatments altogether because they cannot afford the costs.
And 30 per cent reported they felt pressured into paying private fees to get all the dental treatment they needed.
Almost a quarter (23 per cent) said they will only visit the dentist when they need treatment, despite guidance recommending people need regular dental check-ups.
People on low incomes, those living in the northeast and people from ethnic minority groups were hardest hit, Healthwatch added.
Healthwatch England has called on the government to speed up reforms of NHS dentistry to avoid harm to people’s health.
Imelda Redmond, national director of Healthwatch England, said: “The twin crisis of access and affordability hitting NHS dentistry means many people are not able to access timely care – and the poorest are hardest hit.
“Those human stories show that oral health is a social justice and equity issue. Reform of dental contracts needs to be a matter of urgency for this government.
“New arrangements should include making access to NHS dental services equal and affordable for everyone, regardless of where people live, their income and ethnicity.
“Failing to act now will result in long-term harm for thousands of people, putting even greater pressure on the already overstretched healthcare system.”
Shawn Charlwood, chair of the British Dental Association’s general dental practice committee, said: “For too long meaningful reform of NHS dentistry has been repeatedly kicked down the road.
“Covid has pushed a system already in crisis to breaking point, with millions left with no options.
“Patients need to know that by this time next year ministers will have turned the page on a decade of failed contracts and underfunding.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We are committed to supporting the dental sector throughout this unprecedented pandemic so everyone across the country can access affordable, high-quality dental care.
“All dental practices have been able to deliver their full range of face-to-face care since last June, with over 600 practices providing additional support for urgent dental treatment.
“We continue to support the most vulnerable by providing exemptions from dental charges for certain groups – nearly half of all dental treatments, over 17 million, were provided free of charge in 2019-20.”