Healthwatch finds a ‘significant increase’ in people unable to access NHS dentistry

Healthwatch finds a ‘significant increase’ in people unable to access NHS dentistry

In its latest briefing Healthwatch, the patients’ watchdog, has shared what over 1,300 people have told them about their experience of NHS dentistry during July and September 2020. They report a ‘significant increase’ in the number of people telling them about the problems they face when trying to get an NHS dentist appointment.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Healthwatch has seen a significant increase in the number of people telling us about the problems they face when trying to get an NHS dentist appointment, suggesting the impact the pandemic has had on dentistry has been particularly acute.

Between July and September 2020, they heard from 1,313 people about their experiences of dentistry, compared to just 238 people in the previous three months. Their stories show that often they were unable to get the care they needed, leaving them in pain and at risk of serious long-term oral health issues:

  • Access to dental care - the pandemic has made it difficult for most people to access both routine and emergency dental services, with many feeling unsure about when they would next see a dentist or leaving others to travel long distances to get care.
  • No routine care - although dental practices have now reopened, people are still unable to get an appointment for check-ups, hygienist appointments or fillings.
  • Limited NHS appointments - people have reported struggling to access NHS dentistry because practices are either not taking on new NHS patients or have no available NHS appointments.
  • Treatment still on hold - in some cases, dentists have not been able to continue treatment started before lockdown, meaning people have been left in pain and with unresolved issues, like a broken tooth.
  • Access to emergency treatment - people have told us they can’t get through to their dentist when they need urgent care or are unable to access treatment if they do not meet the criteria for it.
  • Affordability - our evidence suggests practices are prioritising private patients over NHS ones or are only offering non-urgent treatment if they pay privately.
  • Lack of information - inaccurate information from the NHS 111, NHS Choices and dental practice websites can leave people frustrated and confused.
  • Confusion about registration - a dental practice cannot de-register someone, but often people who have had a long gap since their last appointment are told they have been, when really what the dental practice means is that there are no available NHS appointments.
  • COVID-19 measures - while practices did adapt once they reopened, not all of them understood how COVID-19 measures would impact some groups of people or didn’t follow all the measures needed to make people feel safe.

4% of people also told Healthwatch about positive experiences of dental care, praising staff who were helpful, kind and considerate and highlighting that clear and regular information from dental practices made them feel reassured. 

Commenting on the report, Susie Sanderson, Dentolegal Consultant at Dental Protection, reiterated the extremely challenging environment for dental professionals:“Dentists have faced a range of challenges throughout the pandemic, and many have returned to practise in equally challenging circumstances – adapting to additional PPE and new ways of working, worrying about their health and that of their staff and patients, and facing a significant backlog of patients with outstanding treatment due to the unavoidable delays. 45% of UK dentists say their mental wellbeing is worse compared to the start of the pandemic.

“Many dentists have also expressed their frustration that guidelines are not always easy to decipher and adhere to and are having an adverse impact on the operating capacity of the practices. The delays and disruption frustrate patients, but also create stress for dentists, who are doing their best but feel they cannot always act in their patients’ best interests for reasons beyond their control. We want to reassure all members that Dental Protection is here to offer support. I would also encourage members experiencing work-related stress to make use of our free counselling service. The service is provided through a third-party partner and is completely confidential.”

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