Only a third of English adults have seen a NHS dentist in the past two years of the pandemic, official data has revealed.
Official health service data shows just under 15.8million adults in England were seen by an NHS dentist in the 24 months to the end of 2021.
It marks a 6million drop-off compared to the 24 months to the end of 2019, the last period of data unimpacted by the Covid crisis.
Like many other services, people struggled to access dentistry during the pandemic as many practices were forced to shut their doors during lockdown.
Hundreds of dentists also left the profession or went entirely private, exacerbating a long term trend in the workforce.
The new report prompted the British Dental Association (BDA) to warn the sector was in the ‘last chance saloon’ and urged government to commit to rapid and sweeping reform of the industry.
They warned the nation’s oral health will begin to suffer due to widening inequality between those unable to see an NHS dentist and those who can afford to go private.
Less adults being able to see an NHS dentist will eventually come back to bite the nation, the BDA warned, as minor problems that could be fixed with simple procedures become more severe and expensive to treat.
Official health service data, which records the number of adults seen by NHS dentists in 24 month periods shows the drastic decline in the number of people seeing a dentist since the pandemic. While people struggled to access NHS dentistry services before Covid due to a lack of appointments, the situation has deteriorated further with 6million fewer people seen compared to pre-pandemic levels
The BDA added that nearly 1,000 dentists have left the NHS in the last year, a trend they expected to continue.
Recent surveys conducted by the BDA indicated that 40 per cent of dentists said they were likely to change career to seek an early retirement, citing current pressures on services.
Backlog of patients waiting to see a dentist stands at 40 MILLION… with fears that HALF of all practices could stop offering NHS care from April, experts warn
Millions of patients face waiting years to see a dentist as thousands of surgeries prepare to close to NHS patients.
There is now a backlog of 40million appointments, but half of all practices could stop offering any NHS care from April, British Dental Association research has revealed.
It also found the equivalent of a whole year’s worth of dentistry has been lost since March 2020, leading to a rise in patients going to A&E in agony or resorting to desperate measures such as pulling teeth out with tweezers.
Many dental surgeries say it is no longer financially viable to provide NHS care, and the BDA has warned of the sector’s ‘chronic underfunding’ and an ‘exodus’ of dentists.
Many patients now have no option but to go private – when treatment can cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds more than on the NHS.
New figures show more and more dentists are going private, and the survey by the BDA found half of dentists are not confident their practice will continue providing any NHS services from April this year.
Two thirds of dentists said they are planning to reduce their NHS commitment, with one third planning to go fully private in the next year.
Even before the pandemic, dentistry was in crisis and it is the only part of the NHS operating on a lower budget than a decade ago.
Many dental surgeries say it is no longer financially viable to offer NHS treatment, leading to an ‘exodus’ of dentists into the private sector.
Additionally, two out of three dentists said they plan to scale back their NHS services, and a third say they plan to fully private within the next year.
The BDA says despite a recent £50m funding boost from the Government the long term funding of NHS dentistry services remains uncertain.
It argues the sector would need a £880m boost just to catch-up from where services were in 2010.
BDA Chair Eddie Crouch said: ‘Each missed appointment translates into bottled up problems and widening oral health inequality.’
‘We’ve now lost more than a year’s worth of dentistry, and any recovery will be impossible if Ministers fail to halt the exodus from a demoralised workforce.
‘NHS dentistry is at the last chance saloon. For the sake of our patients real, urgent reform cannot remain stuck on the government’s ‘too difficult’ list.’
There was one bright spot in the latest NHS dentistry statistics however, with more English children seeing a dentist in the past year.
Children, whose dental attendance is reported in 12 month blocks have seen a modest recovery from the disruption to services caused by the pandemic.
A total of 5.1million under-18s saw an NHS dentist by the end of 2021, about 42.5 per cent of the population.
This is a significant recovery from the figures for the end of 2020 when only 3.6 million children saw an NHS dentist.
However, it is still far below pre-pandemic levels when 7million children, over half the population of under-18s in England saw an NHS dentist by the end of 2019.
The £50million funding from Government to support NHS dentistry services was announced last month with aim of helping dentists conduct an extra 350,000 appointments to help tackle the pandemic treatment backlog.
Running until the end of the March, the funding was offered dentists a pay boost to work out-of-hours, in the evenings and the weekends, and see more patients.
It came amid reports that a fifth of Britons had resorted to “DIY dentistry” at home because they were unable to secure an appointment.
Commenting on the NHS data a Department of Health spokesperson said the Government was working to get more people the oral care they need.
‘We have taken unprecedented action to support the dental sector throughout the pandemic – levels of dental treatment are increasing and urgent care is back to pre-pandemic levels thanks to the hard work of staff,’ they said.
‘We are working with NHS England and partners including the British Dental Service to explore alternative ways of commissioning services and reforming dental contracts.’
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