North East hit hard by access and affordability of dental care
- Healthwatch England warns dental crisis shows no signs of slowing, with four in five people, 80%, struggling to access timely care during the last lockdown
- People on low incomes, those living in the North East and people from ethnic minority groups hardest hit by twin crisis of access and affordability
- NHS dental charges causing public concern as 75% of people in the North East say they are expensive
- Patients champion calls on NHS England and the Government to speed up reforms of NHS dentistry and radically improve access, reduce cost and avoid harm to people’s health
Healthwatch England warns dental care crisis shows no signs of slowing, with four in five people (80%) struggling to access timely care between January and March 2021.
The patients’ champion says the worrying trend of lack of access to NHS dental care continues as it recorded a 22% rise in calls and complaints about dentistry in the last lockdown.
A review of 1,375 people’s experiences shared with local Healthwatch found some people were asked to wait up to three years to get an NHS appointment, whilst private appointments were available within a week.
Whilst some people were charged £400 to get one tooth out, an individual reported being asked to pay over £7,000 for their dentures privately. But private treatment is not an option for everyone, with many now struggling to pay even for NHS treatment.
A separate poll of 2,019 adults commissioned by Healthwatch England found 75% of respondents in the North East felt that NHS dental treatments were expensive.
The poll, which looked at people’s experiences of NHS dentistry during the pandemic and how it has impacted their future habits, found that in the North East:
- Over a quarter (38%) of respondents said they either struggle to pay or avoid dental treatments altogether, because they cannot afford the costs.
- Nearly two in five (29%) reported that they have been charged extra for their NHS treatments.
- Over one third (35%) of people said they found it hard to book an NHS dentist appointment.
As part of its Information and Signposting service, dentist queries to Healthwatch Stockton-on-Tees included:
“A client moved to the area in November last year and has been unable to get an NHS dentist. She contacted a considerable number of dentists who according to the NHS website are taking new NHS patients but to no avail. The client therefore contacted us to ask how they could get help with this situation.”
“A client contacted us in desperate need of an NHS dentist, requiring treatment for a bridge, denture and two fillings. She could not afford to go private and every dentist she rang said they have been advised by the NHS not to take any more patients on but will accept private patients and trying to sell insurance. She asked us if we knew of any NHS dentists in the area that could help.”
People living in the North East are the most likely to avoid NHS dental treatment due to costs (13%), compared with just one in 30 (3%) who live in the South West. Despite this, people in the North East have been charged for NHS dental treatments the most (29%), while people in the South West were charged the least (13%).
About one in three (30%) have reported they felt pressured into paying private fees to get all the dental treatment they needed.
Nearly a quarter (23%) feel they will now visit the dentist only when they need treatment, despite clinical guidelines recommending regular dental check-ups to keep people’s mouths healthy.
Demographic groups who have been affected the most by the lack of NHS dental appointments and NHS dental fees include people on low incomes and those from ethnic minority groups – the same groups who have been worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reform of dentistry has been under way since 2009. Earlier this year it was announced that NHS England would be taking over the process from the Department of Health and Social Care, but reform plans have yet to be announced.
In a recent report on the future of the NHS, the Lancet Commission stressed ‘an absence of affordability is a major barrier to dental care’ and suggested an abolition of patients’ co-payments to access and receive dental care.
Healthwatch calls for greater ambition and urgency from NHS dental reform plans to create more equitable and affordable dental care.
Imelda Redmond CBE, national director of Healthwatch England said: “Limited access to NHS dental care and a spiralling rise of private appointments mean 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.”