Dentistry: Rising numbers struggling to access NHS care

A dentist patientImage source, Getty Images

Rising numbers of people in England are struggling to access NHS dentistry, a leading patient watchdog is warning.

Healthwatch England said it had seen calls and complaints rise by a fifth at the start of this year.

It said some people had been asked to wait up to three years for appointments as the pandemic had created backlogs and worsened access to NHS services.

But the government said work was under way to tackle the problems caused by the pandemic.

This has included extra urgent dental clinics being opened, with vulnerable and those in most need prioritised for treatment.

But Healthwatch England said evidence from the public suggested the first lockdown had created a large backlog in appointments.

Practices were closed from March to June last year and this, clinics now running at limited capacity, and some practices stopping seeing NHS patients had contributed to the problems.

It said 1,375 people had raised concerns with its local branches between January and March 2021 - a 22% rise on the previous three months.

The organisation said people had complained they had felt pushed into going private - and that dental fees were too high for some.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Dentists were forced to shut for several weeks last year because of the coronavirus pandemic

Healthwatch England national director Imelda Redmond said the whole system needed reforming.

"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 largely overstretched healthcare system."

But a Department of Health and Social Care spokesman pointed out there were already extensive exemptions in place - with nearly half of all NHS dental treatments provided free.

It said it had been "committed" to supporting the sector during the pandemic with money invested in more than 600 practices to provide additional urgent support to patients who need treatment immediately.

"We continue to support the most vulnerable by providing exemptions from dental charges for certain groups - nearly half of all dental treatments, over 17 million, were provided free of charge in 2019-20."

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