06:30 27 January 2022
A health watchdog has raised fresh fears over access to NHS dental care, after revealing hundreds of people had made complaints about not being able to make appointments.
Healthwatch Norfolk said it treated 401 county patients who had difficulty getting dental appointments on the health service between April and December 2021. Some of those who complained chose to go private, but many had simply been forced to bear the pain.
The watchdog also revealed it now receives more contacts from the public raising concerns about dentistry than any other area of health and social care.
The problem of NHS dental shortages predates the pandemic, but has been exacerbated by restrictions introduced to tackle Covid-19.
Much of the problem stems from the periods of confinement during which only emergency work could be carried out, which led medical practices to favor private treatments to make ends meet.
The ongoing struggles have led to the government announcing additional funding in a bid to encourage dentists to put NHS patients first.
However, Alex Stewart, chief executive of Healthwatch Norfolk, said there was little evidence it was happening here.
He said: “We aim to contact all dental practices in the county fortnightly so that we are aware of their status on the waiting list and can update patients.
“The NHS and Healthwatch also repeatedly urge practices to keep their websites up to date with their availability to deliver patient care and we will continue to push for this.”
Norwich and South Norfolk have emerged as particular hotspots for dental issues.
Of the 401 people who contacted Healthwatch, 23% were from Norwich and 22% lived in the south of the county.
The East of England received £5,731,000 to help tackle the issue – although only the South West of the country received a smaller share of the funding.
Shawl Charlwood, president of the British Dental Association, said: “Until today not a penny of the government’s multi-billion pound catch-up program has reached dentistry.
“It’s progress, but it must only be the beginning if we are able to rebuild a service that millions of people depend on.”
A whole family fights
Liz Worsley moved to Thorpe End with husband Sean from Derbyshire in 2019 and immediately tried to register with a dentist.
On her first attempts, the closest training she could secure a place for was at King’s Lynn, over 80 kilometers away.
Two and a half years later, she still hasn’t been able to find a place.
Ms Worsley now needs a tooth pulled and her dentures enlarged, while her husband, 58, has missing teeth and has been quoted £2,500 for the treatment he needs in private.
Ms Worsley is on disability benefits and while her husband is working the family is also dependent on food banks, making private treatment out of reach. Their two children, aged 23 and 20, are also queuing for treatment.
She said: “I think it’s appalling that NHS dentistry has been so criminally underfunded for so long.
“I qualify for special needs dentistry but when you move to a new area you need a certificate for that and you can’t get a certificate unless you see a dentist and you can’t see a dentist if you can’t get an appointment – that’s a big catch-22.
“Our youngest still lives in Matlock and he has the exact same problem – so it’s a national crisis.”