Personal care treatments

NHS dentistry on its ‘last legs’ despite data showing increased treatment

Despite an increase in the number of dental treatments carried out across England, industry leaders have warned that NHS dentistry is on its ‘last legs’.

New figures from NHS Digital show that 26.4 million treatments were provided by NHS dentists between April 2021 and March 22, more than double the 12 million reported in the previous 12 months – which were heavily affected by the pandemic.

Practices have been instructed to close and halt all routine dental care from March 25 until June 8 as dentists and oral surgeons are forced to adhere to strict infection control rules due to Covid-19.

The government will fool itself and millions of patients if it tries to hide these numbers.

Eddie Crouch

But the latest figures show the dental sector has not returned to pre-pandemic activity levels, accounting for around two-thirds (69%) of the 38.4 million treatments provided in 2019-20.

NHS Digital also said 16.4million adults in England were seen for NHS dental treatment in the 24 months to June 2022, a 9.5% drop from the 18.1million seen in 24 months until June 2021.

It was also 25% lower than the 22 million adults seen in the 24 months to June 2019.

Some 5.6 million children were seen in the 12 months to June 2022, a 42% increase from the 12 months to June 2021 when 3.9 million were seen, but 20% less than 7 million in the 12 months to June 2019, he added.

The British Dental Association (BDA) said the figures, released on Thursday, showed NHS dentistry was on its ‘last legs’ and underscored the need for sweeping and urgent change.

Its president Eddie Crouch said: “What we see is not a recovery, but a service out of breath.

“The government will fool itself and millions of patients if it tries to hide these numbers.

“NHS dentistry is light years away from where it needs to be.

“Unless ministers step in and deliver much-needed reform and decent funding, this will remain the new normal.”

The BDA said more than a year of NHS dental appointments had been lost since the lockdown, creating a backlog that will take years to clear.

Patients now show higher levels of need, having accumulated problems due to continued access issues, he added.

The BDA said that while the two Conservative leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, had promised urgent reform of NHS dentistry, there was no indication that the Treasury would be mandated to provide the necessary funds for reconstruction and service reform.

The association estimates that it will take an additional £880million a year to restore resources to 2010 levels.

He added that changes to the NHS dentistry contract announced last month did not include any new funding and would do nothing to “significantly expand access or stop the exodus from the NHS”.

The new data comes after an analysis by the British Dental Association (BDA) and the BBC earlier this month found that in England 91% of NHS practices were not accepting new adult patients – 4,933 out of 5,416 – rising to 97% in the East Midlands and 98% in the South West, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.

And a BDA poll of 2,200 street dentists in England found that 45% have reduced their commitment to the NHS since the start of the pandemic.

The Liberal Democrats have called on the government to take action to ensure there are enough NHS dentists for years to come by reforming the current NHS dental contract and committing to workforce planning long-term work.

The party’s health and social care spokeswoman, Daisy Cooper, said: ‘It is shocking that some patients are now being forced into DIY dentistry because they simply cannot afford the hundreds, even the thousands of pounds for private dental treatment.

“Patients are abandoned and this zombie government is nowhere to be found.

“The Liberal Democrats are demanding immediate action to ensure people can access the treatment they need, when they need it, by getting more dentists into the NHS and providing more NHS appointments.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “The latest data shows dental services are recovering from the pandemic, with more than 26 million patient treatments delivered last year – up 120% on the year previous year, plus 1.7 million more children seen by an NHS dentist.

“To further support the ongoing restoration of NHS dentistry, we recently announced the first significant changes to dentistry since 2006, helping practices improve access for the patients who need dental care the most.”