A photograph of a person having a dental check-up as a watchdog calls for the government to step in and save NHS dentistry from crisis

NHS Dentistry Hit by COVID Crisis

The government is being urged to act by a health watchdog, who continue to hear negative experiences from patients, months after they published a report shedding light onto how NHS dentistry has been affected by COVID-19.

The Report

Healthwatch, who published the report, is an “independent consumer champion for health and social care” according to NHS England. Their goal, in their own words, is to “understand the needs, experiences and concerns of people who use health and social care services and to speak out on their behalf”.

Their report, which was published in December, was the result of 1,313 people’s experiences between July and September 2020. It shows that while restrictions eased over summer, people still struggled to see a dentist. The key areas of concern were:

  • Inability to access dental care
  • A lack of routine care; such as check ups, fillings and hygiene appointments
  • Difficulty accessing NHS treatments
  • Treatments put on hold for long periods of time
  • Not enough emergency treatment
  • Preferential treatment for private patients
  • A lack of information available
  • Patients given poor explanations regarding availability of NHS appointments, after big gaps in attendances
  • Inconsistency regarding COVID-19 measures

Only 4% of people told Healthwatch about positive experiences.

Fresh calls of concern for NHS Dentistry

Although Healthwatch published their report in December, they have renewed their plea for the government to act, as they continue to receive poor reports from the public. Sir Robert Francis QC, Chair of Healthwatch England, described the state of dental care in England as “neither equal nor inclusive”.

Healthwatch have long called for, what they describe as “structural issues” to be rectified. They now warn that if the government do not take action, NHS dental care will face a crisis.

They also look to the future, pleading with the Department of Health and Social Care to put more emphasis on oral health, and ensuring that everyone can access dentistry.

Targets causing issues in NHS Dentistry

Healthwatch’s plea comes shortly after the British Dental Association (BDA) expressed concern about targets. This followed a leaked memo from a leading dental chain that asked staff to prioritise routine check-ups, over urgent treatment. The British Dental Association say the chain in question, won’t be the only ones resorting to such tactics to hit targets.

Although dentists are only currently expected to do 45% of their pre-pandemic work, the British Dental Association say many are still struggling. They say, in November less than half of NHS contract holders would have met the revised target. They are now calling for a further reduction in the target.

Time to put patients first

You have to question the effectiveness of a target which results in patients being refused urgent care. However, although lowering the target will help struggling practices avoid sanctions, it will not help patients to get treatment, either. Healthwatch’s report shows that while dentists are rowing with the government about targets, patients are struggling to get treatment.

As solicitors specialising in dental negligence claims, this is not the first time we’ve had to report on struggling NHS services. But in the year when the NHS has a renewed place in the public’s hearts, it does feel like dentistry has been forgotten. Until you need it, of course.

We echo Healthwatch’s plea for the government to properly focus on solving the structural issues which blight NHS dentistry. Much like our hospitals, the pandemic has shone a light on just how vulnerable they were.

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