The COVID-19 crisis has affected many areas of the NHS both locally and nationally. One significant issue that people have raised nationally is about access to dental care.
Data from the Department of Health highlights that almost 1,000 dentists working in 2,500 roles across England and Wales left the NHS last year. This is having an adverse effect on members of the public being able to see a local dentist for both regular check-ups and when emergency treatment is needed. Not only has this been frustrating, but many people have been left in pain or discomfort as a result. Some individuals have been offered the option of having private treatment, but this is not affordable for many.
Without improved access to NHS dental care, not only do people risk facing greater dental problems in the future, pressure will increase on overstretched hospitals and GPs. Untreated dental problems can lead to pain, infection and the exacerbation of other health conditions such as heart and lung disease and stroke. This national picture is echoed in Northumberland, and throughout the second half of 2021 we received feedback from the public that accessing NHS dental services was very difficult, whether registering with an NHS dentist or getting treatment.
With the need to now have lull time in the consulting room between patients, due to COVID-safe guidelines, there is no longer the capacity within NHS dental services to meet their targets, let alone deal with the backlog of appointments that didn’t go ahead due to the lockdown.
Following an initial meeting between Healthwatch Northumberland, Healthwatch North Tyneside, Healthwatch Newcastle, Healthwatch Gateshead and Healthwatch South Tees, the opportunity to work collaboratively with local Healthwatch partners across the North East was offered to all local Healthwatch. Collectively we agreed that there is a need for better access, to NHS dental services, but that this needed surveying and reporting both locally and on a regional basis.
Three other local Healthwatch joined the group: Healthwatch Hartlepool, Healthwatch Stockton-on-Tees and Healthwatch Darlington. These eight teams from the North East and North Cumbria Healthwatch Network agreed to undertake a joint project to understand the concerns of their respective local communities.
The aim of the study was to determine whether accessing NHS dental services is being raised by a small number of people having a problem or whether it is a more widespread issue. If it is a widespread issue, then to use our findings to:
- Influence the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System (NE&NC ICS), local service providers, and NHS England to improve access to NHS dentistry.
- Inform the national picture through sharing our findings with Healthwatch England who are calling for reform of the NHS dental contract alongside the British Dental Association (BDA).
- Support improved information for patients regarding NHS dentistry.
Read our findings and recommendations below: