New national report: Recovery of NHS dental care too slow to help thousands left in pain

Lack of access to NHS dentistry has intensified as an issue for people over the last 18 months. The latest national Healthwatch research is a stark reminder that it is an issue decision-makers must react to now, to protect our health.
Woman at a dentist appointment

NHS dentistry is not working

Access to NHS dentistry has been one of the most significant issues raised with Healthwatch by the public over the last year and a half. In Sheffield over the last three months, a staggering one in three calls and emails have been about the issues you face trying to access an NHS dentist. And this rise in negative feedback has been seen all across England.

To draw attention to the crisis in this sector, our national body Healthwatch England has published a new briefing highlighting the struggles of people trying to access NHS dental care.

We are joining them in urging the Government and NHS England to speed up dental contract reform and provide meaningful, sustained funding to tackle the underlying problems of access and affordability. 

NHS dentistry should be in the frontline of tackling health inequalities and at the moment it is not working.

The national picture

  • Public feedback on NHS dental care has risen five-fold over the last 18 months, compared to pre-pandemic levels. It now accounts for nearly 25% of all the feedback Healthwatch England receive. In Sheffield, this is even higher; from September to December 2021, one in three calls and emails have been about difficulties accessing NHS dentistry.
  • Analysis of 8,019 people’s experiences of NHS dentistry between April 2020 and September 2021 shows that four in five people report struggling to access NHS dental care, including emergency treatment.   
  • Positive sentiment, which was around 30% before the COVID-19 pandemic, is down to its lowest ever level – at just two per cent. 
  • Some dental practices have either shut down or have gone fully private. Some dentists have used up their total NHS capacity and are asking people for private fees instead.  
  • Many people find it hard to get up-to-date information about which practices are taking on new patients because NHS and dentists’ websites aren’t updated regularly. As a result, more people are contacting their local Healthwatch hoping that they’d provide them with accurate information.   
  • It is often the most vulnerable people in our society, including children, disabled people and those living in care homes, who are suffering the most. 

What's happening in Sheffield?

The NHS website says that 24% of dentists in Yorkshire and the North East are currently accepting new NHS patients. This doesn't fit with what you've been telling us locally, so this week our team did our own mystery shopper exercise.

21 out of 50 practices said online that they were accepting new NHS patients, but we phoned each one and it painted a very different picture:  

  • Just one dental practice said they could actually book us an NHS appointment (and the patient would need to visit the practice to provide photo ID and a proof of address first in order to do this)
  • 8 practices said they couldn't add us to a waiting list, with most giving no further information. Only 2 of the 8 said they expected to reopen their waiting lists next year
  • 12 practices said we could go on their waiting list, but these waiting lists were extremely long. One practice said "at least a year", while all the others said "18-24 months" or "2 years plus". To give us a sense of timing, one practice said that there were 700 people on their list, and they've only managed to take 2 off in the last 2 months
  • Several practices offered us private treatment, suggesting we could book an appointment much sooner (January or February 2022) if we signed up to their private treatment plan

It's urgent that the Government and NHS England listen to you

NHS dentistry needs to be fixed. Lack of access to dental care, particularly for children, is a hugely worrying issue that the NHS must tackle immediately; it will have a negative effect on the life-long health of our population.

We know you need to see tangible change and we will keep pushing this issue locally and nationally. That is why we are joining Healthwatch England in calling on the Government and NHS England to make NHS dental care a priority.

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