Dental patients are being forced to wait until 2024 for NHS appointments, a damning report reveals today.
Laying bare the extent of the crisis, watchdogs said many were turning to private care or even pulling their own teeth and doing DIY fillings.
A number of surgeries have thousands on their waiting lists and others have closed their books to new patients.
But some of the same practices will offer an appointment within a week for those who can afford to pay privately, according to research from Healthwatch England.
Dental patients are being forced to wait until 2024 for NHS appointments, a damning report reveals today (stock image)
My 6 month dating struggle
Pensioner Gwen Leeming has accused dentists of discriminating against NHS patients after she struggled for six months to get an appointment.
The retired administrator, pictured, suffered for two years from infections in two of her back teeth, but when she sought help she was told her NHS practice was currently only treating patients private. She searched for an NHS dentist for months and finally found one an hour’s drive from her home.
The 72-year-old, from Brighton, is now calling on the government to fix the ‘broken dental care system’. She added: “For me, historically, there always seems to be a level of prejudice and discrimination against NHS patients.”
Gwen Leeming had to wait six months for treatment
It revealed that one in three patients felt compelled to pay for private care due to unbearable pain. Others say they got into debt to pay dental bills.
Those who cannot go private can wait up to three years before being seen, according to the report. Even emergency care results in waits of up to six weeks.
Delays can lead to “worsening of their dental problems and loss of their teeth,” the report says. Healthwatch England says public opinion of NHS dentistry has never been lower and highlights a ‘twin crisis’ of lack of access and affordability.
The number of dental practices offering NHS treatment rose from 9,661 in 2014/15 to 8,408 in 2019/20. The British Dental Association said dentistry was the only part of the NHS operating on a lower budget than a decade ago.
Spokesman Shawn Charlwood said: “For too long, meaningful reform in NHS dentistry has been repeatedly rejected. Covid has pushed an already crisis system to breaking point, with millions without options.
“Patients need to know that by this time next year ministers will have turned the page on a decade of failed contracts and underfunding.
“While it is shocking that some wait weeks, months or even years to access care, it was business as usual before this pandemic hit.
“It’s not just the result of the lockdown, but years of treating NHS dentistry like the Cinderella service.”
The Healthwatch England report highlights the case of a patient who needed hospital treatment after overdosing on painkillers he was taking to ease his dental problems.
Others have been told to use DIY filler kits or have been prescribed antibiotics with no prospect of a follow-up appointment to treat the underlying problem.
Some who have called NHS 111 for emergency care have been told to ‘use salt water’ and keep calling dental practices until they can get help. Wait times just to get to surgery can exceed an hour.
Other patients say they were taken off their practice roster for not making regular enough appointments and only found out when they tried to book. “Access to NHS dentistry remained a key issue for people across England between January and March 2021,” the report said.
Laying bare the extent of the crisis, watchdogs said many were turning to private care or even pulling their own teeth and doing DIY fillings. Pictured: A dental nurse disinfects an operating theater in London in May 2020
Cancer patient faces £1.3k bill
Cancer patient Janet Walsh, 80, has spent months suffering because she can’t find a dentist to treat NHS patients.
She broke a tooth in November, leaving the bottom plate of her dentures rubbing against her gums. Five months later, the Leeds retiree, pictured right, who is undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, has still been unable to find an NHS dentist.
If it goes private it will cost up to £1,335. “I’m too exhausted to go looking for dentists,” she told Leeds Live.
Janet Walsh, cancer patient
Of those who contacted the organization in the first three months of the year, four in five said they had difficulty accessing care quickly enough. And the number of complaints received about dentistry increased by 22% compared to last year.
Imelda Redmond, National Director of Healthwatch England, said: ‘The twin crises of access and affordability hitting NHS dentistry means many people cannot access timely care – and the poorest are hardest hit.
“Dental contract reform must be an urgent matter. The new provisions should notably make access to NHS dental services equal and affordable for all, regardless of where people live, their income and their ethnicity.
“Failing to act now will cause long-term damage to thousands of people, putting even greater strain on the already overstretched healthcare system.”
Even where patients can access NHS dental services, 61% say it is too expensive, with charges ranging from £23.80 to £282.80 depending on the treatment.
Private treatment can cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds more.
One in four said they had struggled to afford or avoided dental treatment because of the cost, according to a separate survey for the watchdog.
Nearly a third had to pay private fees to receive all the treatment they needed.
Last night the Department of Health insisted it was committed to supporting dentists so that ‘everyone across the country can access affordable, high-quality dental care’.
He said all the practices had been able to provide their full range of services since last June and he was supporting the “most vulnerable” with free treatment.
“Some people had to wait up to three years to get an appointment with the NHS. However, private appointments are available during the week. People borrowed money to pay for private treatment as a last resort.
The watchdog, a statutory body formed to present patients’ views to health officials, reviewed 1,375 cases.