Local recruitment crisis for dentists in east Suffolk

File photo dated 28/11/2006 of a dentist looking in a patien

Concerns have been raised over a lack of NHS dental appointments in east Suffolk. - Credit: John Giles/PA Wire

A local recruitment crisis for dentists coupled with a poor deal in NHS contracts has resulted in a shortage of appointments in east Suffolk, health leaders have said.

Suffolk and Norfolk dentists exposed the extent of the problem at a meeting of East Suffolk Council’s scrutiny committee on Thursday night, in which it was highlighted that it was “not unusual in our region of the country to have unfilled vacancies for over two years”.

The issue had been brought to the committee for discussion by Kirkley and Pakefield ward councillor Louise Gooch, who has experienced problems since the closure of Ferns and Yaxley on Kirkley Cliff Road.

Dentists are having to wear more heavy-duty PPE due to the coronavirus. Suffolk practices have asked

East Suffolk Council discussed the issue at a meeting of their scrutiny committee. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Paul Rolfe, secretary of the Suffolk Local Dental Committee, said that the region did not have a dental school which made recruitment difficult.

“The difficulty with dentistry is you tend to either work where you qualify or where you are from, and there aren’t many people from the east of England going to dental school,” he said.

“As a result, we are not training enough people in the region who will want to come back.”

The committee heard that the region has historically relied on European and New Zealand dentists, but this had become more difficult as a result of Brexit and Covid-19.

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Additionally, only dentists on the NHS dental performers list can carry out NHS appointments, but complicated red tape meant fully qualified dentists from other countries struggled to get added to the list.

Jason Stokes is secretary of the Norfolk Local Dental Committee.

Jason Stokes is secretary of the Norfolk Local Dental Committee. - Credit: Jason Stokes

Elsewhere, Jason Stokes, secretary of the Norfolk Local Dental Committee, said that the NHS contracts were “not fit for purpose”, and of too short a duration to be attractive for surgeries to bid for.

He explained that the contracts did not differentiate between a patient who needed one filling or several, which left uncertainty for practices.

But plans have been voiced to tweak contracts so surgeries would offer seven day per week services from 8am to 8pm.

David Barter, head of commissioning for the East of England at NHS England said: “A lot of work is being done by the commissioning team to be able to flexibly commission the contract so that it’s more fit for purpose.

“There are currently live procurements for quite a lot of activity in different parts of Suffolk and Norfolk.

“Without going into any details, these contracts are for an 8am-8pm, seven-day a week, 365 day a year service.

“We are asking the providers to provide healthcare in a slightly different way.

“These new contracts will very much allow all dental clinical professionals in the dental team, overseen by dentists, to provide good oral care for patients.”

Despite the contract changes, it is not yet clear what the take-up will be from practices, with Waveney MP Peter Aldous saying that his conversations with dentists indicated there was concern on surgeries bidding for contracts on that basis.

East Suffolk Councillor Louise Gooch

Louise Gooch, East Suffolk councillor for Kirkley and Pakefield. - Credit: LOUISE GOOCH/EAST SUFFOLK LABOUR GROUP

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Ms Gooch said she had been contacted by numerous residents who were experiencing "either great difficulty or absolute impossibility" in securing NHS dental treatment.

She said: "Although dental provision does not directly sit under the remit of district councils, they do have a duty of care to residents."

East Suffolk’s scrutiny committee is to write to the Department of Health and Social Care outlining the district’s concerns and call for an urgent rethink of the NHS contracts, as well as penning a representation to the county’s health scrutiny committee.

In August, NHS England announced it was inviting tenders for new surgery in Lowestoft.

In 2019, among 8,848 people taking part in the NHS dental survey in Norfolk and Waveney, 91pc were successful in getting a NHS dental appointment.

This year that was just 66pc, of 9.109 people surveyed.

In 2019, 52pc of respondents rated their experience of NHS dental services as “very good”. This year that had fallen to just 39pc.

There have been more patients per dentist in Norfolk and Waveney, than across England as a whole, since 2015 and that trend has accelerated recently.

From last March to last June, face-to-face dentistry was cancelled altogether save for the most extreme emergencies, and since then Covid restrictions have meant clinics cannot see as many patients as before.

Kay Piper and Peter Chenery

Kay Piper and her partner Peter Chenery, from Lowestoft, have asked what has happened to the NHS's duty of care - Credit: Archant

‘He can’t eat his roast’

Kay Piper’s partner Peter, 51, has been in pain for months, after their local dentist in Lowestoft closed.

The retiree explained: “He’s literally just lost two more teeth. He was in so much pain. 

“We got him an emergency appointment at a dentist, but it was literally injection in, pull the tooth out, and leave. There was no follow-up. He needs dentures, he needs dental care, and he’s not getting it.

“He probably only got seven or eight teeth left.

“He can only eat soft things now, he’s unable to chew. He loves pork, but he can’t have it because he’s got no teeth to chew it with, so he can’t eat a roast dinner. 

“How is it fair? He’s worked every day of his life.”