Warnings of dentistry crisis as public concerns continue

We urge the Government to take urgent action to address issues with access to NHS dental care as we continue to hear from people about their poor experiences.
Dentistry tools on a tray

Healthwatch continues to hear concerns about dentistry, which were first highlighted in the "Dentistry and the impact of COVID-19" report following a 452% rise in calls and complaints to local Healthwatch.

Our report findings

In a follow-up review of people's feedback on dentistry, we looked at a further 1,129 people’s experiences of accessing dental care, received between October and December 2020.

We found:

  • Access to dentistry remained difficult for more than seven in 10 people (72%).

  • Some people who actively sought dental treatment were told they would have to wait anywhere between a few months to, in one case, two years for an appointment.  

  • Access to urgent NHS treatment was difficult for both people with painful teeth, with patients being told that dental pain was not considered an “emergency”, and those who were prescribed multiple courses of antibiotics by NHS111 without being provided any further treatment.  

  • Some people said they had called over 40 practices to find an NHS dentist, and pulled their own teeth out when they couldn’t bear the pain.  

  • When dentists couldn’t offer an appointment, they advised people to buy dental repair kits to treat themselves. In one case, an individual was advised to use a nail file to deal with the sharp edges of a broken tooth.  

We highlighted similar issues in our report published last December, which examined what people had told us from July to September 2020 about accessing dental care.

The findings come after some MPs and the British Dental Association called on the Government to scrap its new targets for NHS dentists, which require them to deliver 45% of their pre-pandemic levels of dental activity.

There are concerns this is likely to push practices into prioritising appointments such as check-ups over emergency or more complex treatments.

We have previously called for more emphasis to be placed on solving structural issues within NHS dental services and warns dental care is facing an immediate crisis without the Government stepping up to the plate.

Sir Robert Francis QC, Chair of Healthwatch England, said:  

 “Our findings show that access to dental care is currently neither equal nor inclusive, leading to traumatic experiences for many people.   

“This provides yet more evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the human impact of years of structural issues in NHS dentistry and is now pushing it to crisis point. We are hugely concerned that this will have detrimental effects to the nation’s health for years to come.

“Although we have to grapple with the pandemic, all efforts should be made to treat those in need of urgent care and provide more accurate and up-to-date information to help people find and access NHS dental care.

“In the longer term, the Department of Health and Social Care must prioritise the importance of oral health and commit to improving access to dentistry for everyone who needs it.”

The impact on people

The findings also suggest that people are being told that although NHS appointments are not available, they can be treated privately. This creates a real barrier for everyone, particularly for people on low incomes, to receive vital treatment.

While one individual was charged £500 for an extraction of a single tooth, another person was offered a procedure for £1,700, which was £60 on the NHS.

Paul, from Dorset, found it difficult to get treatment on the NHS after his old crown got loose.

“I called a local dentist and was told they could take a look on a private care as no NHS dentist would see me. They replaced it with a temporary crown, which cost me £110, and quoted me £2000 for a permanent one. I was warned to get it fixed permanently or would get an abscess. I spent the next week calling every dentist in Dorset and no one would see me on NHS." 

Paul eventually found a local "Mydentist", a private alternative to NHS dental care, which offered the treatment for a total of £700 - a more affordable option for Paul.  

"After three months of being in pain, I am having treatment now (...) In my experience, the NHS dental service doesn’t exist. The broken system is easily blamed on the pandemic. However, you can still get a private dentist, but not on NHS.

"I spent weeks and weeks in so much pain and ate very little, feeling tired and exhausted – this is not an experience I ever want to go through again.” 

Dental findings: the impact of COVID-19  

Some appointments were cancelled as dentists were unable to provide safe care without adequate PPE. Healthwatch Havering found out that one in four dental practices in their area were charging extra for PPE.

Overall figures show:

  • Nearly three in five people (58%) expressed negative sentiments about dentistry, compared with one in two (51%) in the previous three months.
  • There was however a noticeable increase in the amount of positive feedback about dentistry, with just over one in 10 (12%) saying something positive, compared with one in 25 (four per cent) between July and Sept 2020. 

Read our previous findings