Dentists threaten to ‘go private’ or ‘reduce NHS commitment’ as they urge reform

A significant number of dentists are threatening to reduce their NHS commitment and expand their private work due to pressures imposed by the pandemic.

A new poll of dentists found that almost half (47%) said they were “likely” or “extremely likely” to “reduce their NHS commitment”.

Meanwhile 30% said they were minded to “go fully private”, according to a poll by the British Dental Association (BDA).

The BDA warned that dentists are facing severe pressure as a result of the pandemic, with almost half (47%) saying they are considering retiring early or may change career due to current pressures.

It has estimated that 30 million appointments have been “lost” due to the Covid-19 crisis.

It comes after a damning report by Healthwatch England, shared with the PA news agency, highlighted the struggles that patients face when trying to book an NHS dentist appointment.

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Some people have been told to wait for three years for an appointment while others are being removed from their practice lists for not making appointments sooner, according to the report.

Dental surgeries have reported that they have thousands of people on their waiting lists, while patients are unable to access care after ringing round numerous dental surgeries – even when they are in need of emergency care.

Meanwhile, people are being offered swift private care as an alternative at the same dental practice, with some patients reporting that they felt “pressured” to pay for private care, Healthwatch said.

New data from the BDA shines a spotlight on the current issues facing dentists.

Dentists have been ordered to return to reaching 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.

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Medics are required to wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) for aerosol generating procedures and in dental practise a large proportion of treatments meet this threshold.

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.

The BDA said that England remains the only UK nation where government has not committed to or embarked on exploratory work to provide capital funding for ventilation systems to enable practices to increase patient numbers.

Meanwhile, social distancing rules mean that waiting rooms are empty and dentists are unable to see patients as quickly as they would like.

The impact of the pandemic has had a large effect on NHS dentistry, with many saying that they will “personally reduce their NHS offer”.

The survey of 1,767 dentists in England found that 29% said it was “extremely likely” they would do this, and 18% said it was likely.

A third (35%) said it was likely their practice would reduce its commitment.

The BDA said that the high level of PPE mandated was having an impact on staff morale.

It has called on the Government to set out a clear route map for reform and relaxation of Covid restrictions placed upon dentists.

Shawn Charlwood, chair of the British Dental Association’s General Dental Practice Committee said: “The pandemic has wiped out access for millions and taken a hammer blow to the workforce, with many now looking for the exit.

“Practices have managed to hit punitive targets, but at a terrible cost. Churning through appointments against the clock in heavy duty PPE now risks an exodus from this service.

“Fixing NHS dentistry will be impossible if dentists are left unwilling to work in it. We need a clear road map that lifts restrictions, provides needed support to all practices and makes a decisive break with a broken contract.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We are supporting the dental sector throughout this unprecedented pandemic and we continue to work closely with the NHS to increase access to high quality, affordable dental care as fast as possible, while protecting staff and patients.

“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.”