Dentist reveals why Suffolk residents can't get NHS appointments
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A dentist has spoken out after Suffolk NHS patients detailed the pain they have been left in for months as they struggle to get appointments for toothache and broken teeth.
The British Dental Association's Nick Stolls claims their members' poll found almost half (47%) said dentists were “likely” or “extremely likely” to “reduce their NHS commitment" as the system of providing dental care has become "broken".
Mr Stolls, who sits on the BDA's general dental practice committee for East Anglia, added that 30% of British dentists - who are contracted to deliver services to the NHS and have private practices - were minded to “go fully private” and the situation is becoming progressively worse in Suffolk as dentists retire.
In one example, he said after two dentists doing NHS appointments retired in Lowestoft last year including the D W Ferns and A P Yaxley practice, their contract was not given elsewhere to another practice in Suffolk so patients locally have less access to dental appointments in the area.
The NHS contract also may create the wrong incentives as fixing one filling is valued the same as fixing 10 and there is no leniency if the care takes longer.
"The [department of health and social care and NHS] put treatment into one of three bands, which is like having all starters prices the same in a restaurant," he said.
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"Dentists want to priorities patients who need urgent treatment", he added but they often do not have enough NHS appointments available under their contract and if they were to see people when they don't have the slots they would be seeing them for free.
If not enough appointments are done by overstretched dentists then the money from their contract with the NHS is then "clawed back", Mr Stolls says, by East of England NHS teams in Suffolk and then returned to government, not dental care services.
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"This figure has been going up year on year," he added, when "spend per person [on NHS dental care] has gone down 38 to 40 per cents in the last 10 years," he added.
"Keeping pace with treatment and finding additional money would mean people would access [dental care] more easily."
Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill, whose government brief included dental care, admitted on May 25 that the NHS contract system - currently being negotiated by the NHS and DHSC - is "broken"
She said: "The UDA—unit of dental activity—system, brought in by the Labour Government in 2006, is broken; we understand that it is broken, but these things take more than a month to put in place.
"To improve access for those who need it most, we are pushing on with flexible commissioning, focusing on those experiencing health inequality and on available capacity where it will impact oral health most."
Added to this already long-standing issue has been the toll the pandemic has had on dental services with the NHS saying dentists have to reach 60% of their pre-Covid activity levels but have said that they are currently unable to see patients in huge volumes because they are still bound by restrictions.
This means dentists are spending a significant amount of time putting on and taking off their protective equipment and extra time is allocated between appointments.
This has all lead to situations where Ipswich residents like Belinda Lewis, who is lucky enough to have an NHS dentist at the Orwell Dental Practice, spend 11 weeks of pain with her eye, ear, nose and cheek waiting for a filling and eventually losing a tooth.
A spokesman for the DHSC: “All dental practices have been able to deliver the full range of face-to-face care since last summer, with over 600 practices providing additional support for urgent dental treatment.
"We continue to support the most vulnerable with exemptions from dental charges and through the NHS low-income scheme. Nearly half of all dental treatments – over 17 million – were provided free of charge in 2019-20.”
People who are in pain should call NHS 111 to access an Urgent Dental Centre.