State of dentistry could mean cancer cases being missed – Healthwatch England

Ella Pickover, PA Health Correspondent

Cases of mouth cancer could be going undiagnosed, a health watchdog has warned as it claimed that NHS Dentistry is “a mess”.

Healthwatch England said that for many people it is “very, very difficult” to get a dentist appointment – with some people being forced to call 60 practices in order to find NHS care.

The comments come after a report revealed that some NHS dental patients are being asked to pay for private appointments “if they want treatment”, while others face two-year waits for appointments.

Healthwatch England was contacted by one patient who was offered a procedure for £1,700 which was £60 on the NHS.

Another was told that their odds of successful treatment would increase substantially if they were willing to pay for private care.

A briefing document from the watchdog, seen by the PA news agency, also highlights how one patient was told they would need to wait for two years for an NHS dental appointment.

Another patient was told to use a nail file to deal with a broken tooth, and others were advised to “buy dental repair kits and treat themselves”.

Healthwatch England warned that NHS Dentistry is being pushed to “crisis point”.

Sir Robert Francis QC, chairman of Healthwatch England, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We immediately need to make sure that dentists who provide NHS care are able to provide it – that doesn’t seem to be happening uniformly around the country.

“We do not think that currently dental care being provided on the NHS is either equal or inclusive.

“And part of the problem is of course the pandemic and we must recognise that, but we should be in a state where more than extraction is offered to treat dental pain, where that’s appropriate.

“And that doesn’t seem to be happening everywhere.”

He added that part of the problem was that dentists are incentivised to deal with “volume over complexity” which means they are taking on more simple cases rather than the more complicated ones.

Meanwhile, Imelda Redmond, national director for Healthwatch England, said some patients in need of dental care are calling 50 to 60 practices to try to get help.

She told Sky News: “In many parts of the country it’s very, very difficult to get an NHS dentist (appointment) in a reasonable timeframe.

“The quality of information is really poor so that some people are ringing 50, 60 dentists before they can actually get an appointment.

“The scale of the distress that people have been through is extraordinary.”

She added: “We still need to make sure that people who need treatment are getting treatment… there are people who will have mouth cancer and won’t have it diagnosed during this time.”

Healthwatch England was contacted by hundreds of people between October and December last year complaining about dentistry issues in the health service.

The most common reason for people to approach the watchdog was to complain about a lack of appointments.

Other information in the document includes:

– A patient was told  NHS care would be “60% successful”, but if they were willing to pay for private care, the odds of success would increase to 90%.

– For some patients, if they were not considered to be an emergency, they were told they were not eligible for NHS treatment.

– A patient was offered a procedure for £1,700 which was £60 on the NHS.

Shawn Charlwood, chair of the British Dental Association’s General Dental Practice Committee, said: “Patients with urgent problems need to be at the front of the queue for care.

“Sadly, Government is forcing dentists to prioritise volume over need by imposing inappropriate targets.

“This service is yet to return to anything resembling business as usual.

“We need Government to adopt a pragmatic approach, which keeps practices afloat and ensures those who need dental care the most can secure it.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting the dental sector throughout this unprecedented pandemic so everyone can access affordable, high-quality dental care.

“Since last summer, all practices have been able to open to deliver the full range of face-to-face care with 600 extra urgent dental centres providing extra support.

“We continue to work closely with the NHS to increase access as fast as possible, while protecting staff and patients from Covid-19 infection.”

An NHS spokeswoman said: “It’s right that the NHS has set targets that help patients see their dentist, with many practices already going well beyond the target set. Despite the pandemic, millions of people received dental treatment last year and the NHS has set up over 650 urgent dental hubs so patients can get access to a dentist if they need it.”

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