Children’s access to dental care ‘collapsed’ during pandemic

A “collapse” in access to dental care for children during the pandemic will fuel record tooth extractions, experts have warned. 

New figures show the number of operations on children to remove rotten teeth fell by 58 per cent in 2020/21 as hospitals concentrated on Covid pressures. 

Dentists said the figures did not reflect a fall in demand for the procedures – which take place in hospital under general anaesthetic – instead showing the impact of lack of access to such care during the pandemic.

It follows warnings of “dental deserts” in some parts of the country, with patients struggling to find dentists taking new NHS patients in Somerset. 

The British Dental Association urged ministers to act decisively to deal with the backlogs, warning that tens of thousands of children have been left in pain.  

New data from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities show 14,615 extractions were performed on decayed teeth in 2020/21 among children aged 0-19.

This compares with 35,190 such procedures in the same age group the year before the pandemic. 

‘Thousands left in pain’

Charlotte Waite, chairman of the British Dental Association’s (BDA) England community dental services committee said: “Tooth extractions among children have collapsed, but the level of demand hasn’t gone anywhere. Covid has simply left tens of thousands in pain, potentially waiting years for treatment they desperately need.”

The BDA urged health officials to provide “full disclosure” on the waiting times children are now facing, and a properly funded plan to catch up with record numbers in need. 

Dr Waite said: “Government has yet to offer real clarity on the scale of the backlog, or a credible plan to tackle it.”

The data show children from the poorest areas are three times more likely to have extractions than those from the most affluent communities. 

More than 12.5 million NHS dental appointments for children have been lost in England since lockdown, figures suggest.

Somerset the worst ‘dental desert’

It comes as patients in Somerset say they are being left in agony and facing bills of more than £1,000 as they are driven into the private sector by the absence of check-ups and treatment. 

Patients groups said they had been told there were no NHS dentists available across the county in what is said to be England’s starkest case of a “dental desert”.

Healthwatch Somerset said a third of the calls it received in the three months to February were about problems accessing NHS dentistry – many concerning children, pregnant women and people who cannot afford private dental care.

Gill Keniston-Goble, a manager at the patient champion organisation, said that in England’s eighth largest county: “People are telling us they have called many dentists but cannot find one taking new patients.”

A survey by The Telegraph of the NHS “find a dentist” online service found that of the 89 NHS-linked surgeries surrounding Taunton and Bridgwater, the two main towns in the county, none were freely taking any adult patients. 

A third of the surgeries within an 18-mile radius of the towns said they were “not taking any new NHS patients at the moment”, while two were taking under-18s only, 25 had not updated their status, and 29 were via NHS referral only, which is for emergency care. 

‘Tooth decay in children has not simply disappeared’

Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation, said: “To report that childhood tooth extractions in England have shrunk is a smokescreen towards the reality of what is happening. Tooth decay in children has not simply disappeared over the last year, which means that thousands of young people are going without the treatment they need.

“It is unfair and unjust for just one child, let alone thousands, to be put in pain because they are unable to access the care they deserve.”     

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We have provided £50 million to fund up to 350,000 extra NHS dental appointments and we are growing the workforce so people can get the care they need.

“Dentists prioritised vulnerable groups and urgent care throughout the pandemic, while continuing to provide free care to groups such as pregnant women, young people, and those on low-income benefits,” he said. 

An NHS spokesman said: “The NHS has been clear that dental practices must prioritise children, and taken unprecedented action throughout the pandemic to support dentists to continue to treat their patients.

“An additional £50 million was made available to support patients with urgent care needs in January – as well as income protection for practices unable to deliver their usual levels of activity – and anyone with concerns about their child’s dental health should contact their local dentist as they usually would or seek advice from NHS 111.”

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