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NHS dentistry ‘hanging by a thread’ after nearly 1,000 dentists quit service

The number of NHS dentists fell by at least a tenth in 30 areas of England and two parts of Wales last year, with a watchdog warning of six-week waits for emergency dental treatment. Find out what the situation is in your area.

A union has warned NHS dentistry is "hanging by a thread" after nearly 1,000 dentists quit the service in a year.

The dentists, working across about 2,500 roles in England and Wales, represent 8% of the workforce.

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The worst-affected place was Portsmouth, which lost 26% of its NHS dentists over 12 months.

The British Dental Association (BDA) said unhappiness with the NHS dental contract was a key factor.

The BDA’s Shawn Charlwood warned significant numbers of dentists were planning on leaving the NHS.

“NHS dentistry is hanging by a thread, because without NHS dentists, there will be no NHS dentistry,” said Mr Charlwood.

Shawn Charlwood of the British Dental Association. Photo: BDA.

“We’re seeing significant numbers of dentists indicating that they will be leaving the NHS dental service.

“It’s a really serious situation and every dentist that is lost or every vacancy for NHS dentistry remains unfilled affects thousands of patients in terms of care and their ability to access care.”

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The number of NHS dentists fell by at least a tenth in 30 areas of England and two parts of Wales in the year ending March 31, 2021, analysis by the BBC Shared Data nit shows.

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NHS England said patients who needed care the most should be prioritised, and said it had set up 600 urgent dental centres across England.

Mum pulled out 11 of her own teeth

A desperate mum was forced to pull out 11 of her own teeth because she couldn’t find a dentist.

Danielle Watts, from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, said she can’t afford private treatment, which could cost "thousands of pounds".

She said: "My teeth literally fall out. It’s not like I have to get the pliers out - just a little twist or tug and they’re free.

"I don’t enjoy it, trust me.”

Speaking to the media last autumn, Danielle said she and her two children hadn’t seen a dentist for six years after their NHS practice shut down, leaving her unable to afford private appointments.

She said: "It’s not like I’ve given up on my dental hygiene. I brush my teeth every day."

‘Six-week waits for emergency care’

Patients’ watchdog Healthwatch said the pandemic had exacerbated a problem which had been building for a long time.

Chris McCann, its interim national director, said: “We’ve heard examples of people being told that they have to wait for up to two years for routine check-ups, and up to six weeks for emergency care.

Chris McCann, Healthwatch interim national director. Photo: Healthwatch

“These lengthy waits can lead to more serious problems and long term that leads to increased pressure on the NHS.

“We’ve even seen, in the most extreme cases, people performing DIY extractions.

“But in the long term you’ve got the issue that if people aren’t seeing their dentists then more serious conditions, for instance, most cancers, might not be picked up, which obviously is very serious and it bleeds to further pressures elsewhere in the system.”

A spokesperson for NHS England said: “The NHS has taken unprecedented action to support NHS dentists throughout the pandemic by providing additional funding for practices unable to deliver their usual levels of activity, alongside rapidly setting up 600 urgent dental centres across England so patient services could be maintained during the pandemic.

“People should continue to come forward for the dental care they need, and the care and treatment of people who need it most should be prioritised.”

In 2021, Wales turned away from the current dental contract. This change is yet to be reflected in the data, but the British Dental Association has predicted that dentists will feel more encouraged to undertake NHS work in Wales because of the change.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We are providing health boards with £3m in 2021-22 to boost access to NHS dental services, and £2m recurrently from 2022-23 to support increased provision.”

Dentist numbers stable in Scotland and Northern Ireland

NHS dentistry is a devolved issue. In Scotland, the number of NHS dentists remains stable, with 3,703 dentists on the books in March 2021, three more than there had been a year before.

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It is a similar picture in Northern Ireland, where there were 1,142 NHS dentists in 2020-21, five fewer than the previous year.

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