In his regular column, Sir John Hayes MP looks at the dental crisis.
There is a crisis in NHS dental provision. Sensationalist national media outlets don’t deal seriously with such real world problems, but, as everyone who has experienced chronic dental pain knows, access to dentists matters.
As with so much else, social distancing during the Covid pandemic made proper dental care difficult. During those days, 70% of dentistry appointments that should have been delivered were missed, equating to 28 million lost courses of treatment.
That compounded an already disturbing situation for English dentistry – the number of practising NHS dentists continues to fall (951 dentists left the NHS last year alone) – as the glaring injustice of regional ‘dental deserts’ worsens.
Last week I spoke in a Parliamentary debate on NHS dentistry, not least because here in Lincolnshire we live in one of the so-called ‘deserts’.
As many of my constituents know, securing a single appointment, never mind the successive treatments often needed for complicated dental procedures, is too often a struggle. That’s because Lincolnshire is a ‘dental desert’ with amongst the lowest number of NHS dentists per 100,000 people, just 38 – while neighbouring North East Lincolnshire has even fewer!
Because this raw deal has such a damaging impact on our quality of life, last week I called on the Government Minister responsible to act urgently.
There are systemic issues which have led to the lack of NHS dentists generally. The genesis of this problem can be traced to the NHS dental contracts agreed by the Labour Government back in 2006 (the same failure applies to GP contracts, by the way), but we also face the problem of training too few NHS dentists.
Those 2006 contracts require urgent reform. The funding models and treatment priorities set nearly two decades ago often disincentivise prevention (ideally better than cure) and push aspiring dentists into the lucrative private sector through absurd payment systems and endless bureaucracy. Indeed, during last week’s debate, one of my colleagues, a practising dentist, noted that his own small business pays a company £150 a month just to handle those convoluted, time-consuming forms.
Thankfully, the Minister responding in Parliament confirmed that the Government is in dialogue with the British Dental Association and NHS England to reform contracts. Nevertheless, this must be a first step in a comprehensive plan of action. The extra £50 million already pledged to provide up to 350,000 extra appointments will go some way to helping those in the most need, such as children and those with mental health issues or learning disabilities.
As I said in Parliament, dental care for young people is vital, as cared for teeth can last a lifetime. Our children deserve better than what’s on offer now.
However, while a reformed contract, streamlined services and fair funding should bolster the ranks of NHS dentists, the root problem for ‘dental deserts’ like ours is that there simply aren’t enough dentists, public or private.
Too often political decision making is preoccupied by short-term thinking. As the Government eases the current burden through its sensible reforms, in Lincolnshire we need to know that this crisis won’t emerge again in the future.
Fundamentally, we need to train more British dentists.
To bring more NHS dentists to places like South Holland, we must train them here. Many students settle and work close to where they learn, and dentistry is no exception. While it can take nearly a decade from breaking ground on a new dentistry school to producing the first graduates, it is only by sowing the seeds of a national dentistry workforce that ‘dental deserts’ will become a thing of the past.
With the new Integrated Care Board taking on responsibility for dentistry from 2023, I have asked them to immediately consider how, when and precisely where NHS dentists can be trained in our area. The NHS must live up to its name by being truly national and equipped to serve us all.