Somerset has been branded a ‘dental desert’ as thousands of patients across the county struggle to get access to dental care.
There has been a mass exodus of NHS dentists in England in the last year, which has left the health service with its smallest workforce in a decade.
The situation is particularly dire in Somerset, where residents are unable to register as new NHS dentist patients. They have spoken of being left in tears after having to pay £1,100 for treatment amid the cost of living crisis.
NHS officials have been forced to set up a helpline for the county’s 500,000 people to access emergency dental care.
But the local health service is struggling to find NHS dentists to complete the work, according to patient champion organisation Healthwatch Somerset.
A third of the calls it receives are about problems accessing NHS dentistry, many of them regarding children and pregnant women — who are entitled to free care.
Healthwatch Somerset also warned some elderly people in care homes were being struck off NHS dentist lists after not being able to attend an appointment throughout the pandemic.
Many dentists take patients off their lists if they have not attended an appointment in a set amount of time.
Across the country more widely, millions have been left without access to care after some 2,000 dentists quit the NHS in England last year.
Campaign groups warn patients are facing a ‘twin crisis’ of access and affordability, which could widen inequalities — despite the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda.
Millions of people have been left without access to dental care after the number of NHS dentists fell to their lowest level ever last year
Lydia Davis, who moved to Bridgwater, Somerset, in early 2020, said she has not been able to find an NHS dentist within a two-hour radius
Lydia Davis, who moved to Bridgwater, Somerset, in early 2020, said she has not been able to find an NHS dentist within a two-hour radius.
The 27-year-old suffers from a form of gum disease called gingivitis and her gums frequently bleed when she brushes her teeth. She also needs two new fillings and wisdom teeth removal.
After she was unable to find a local NHS provider, she sought private care.
‘Sitting in the dentist’s office, listening to the list of treatments, the cost of £1,100 brought me to tears. These costs were on top of the £50 I had to spend to have her appointment,’ Lydia said.
NHS dental backlog stands at 40 MILLION
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.
She added: ‘Whenever I eat and feel a twinge, my heart drops – I panic that something terrible is happening again, I am anxious all the time and my mental health suffers because of it.
‘It isn’t fair for people who earn high salaries to be using a cheap NHS dental service whilst others on low incomes go into debt trying to look after themselves.
‘There’s no version of private dentistry that’s affordable. Even using the word “affordable” for private dental care is a slap in the face when you are paying your taxes towards a vital service you have no access to.’
The NHS now has the smallest dentist workforce in a decade, figures show.
The number of NHS dentists in England fell from 23,733 at the end of 2020 to 21,544 at the end of January this year, according to the Association of Dental Groups (ADG).
It means around 4million people could find it harder to get treatment on the NHS, given each dentist has a caseload of about 2,000 patients.
Healthwatch England – the national body representing patients – also warned a lack of access to NHS dentistry is deepening health inequalities across the country.
New polling for the body found about two in five (41 per cent) people have experienced difficulty booking an NHS dental appointment.
Almost a quarter (24 per cent) said they had to pay privately to access care.
Some 17 per cent said they felt ‘pressured’ to pay privately when they tried to book a dental appointment.
The survey of 2,000 adults in England found about half (49 per cent) think NHS dental charges are ‘unfair’ amid the rising cost of living.
Healthwatch England said the shortage of dental appointments had hit people on low incomes hardest as they are less likely to have been able to access dental care compared to people on high incomes.
The situation has become so bad the NHS has set up a phoneline to help people access emergency dental care (stock image)
What is gum disease?
Gum disease is where the gums become red, swollen and sore, and bleed.
It’s very common, but it’s important to get it checked by a dentist.
What are the symptoms?
- your gums bleeding when you brush your teeth, floss or eat hard foods such as apples
- your gums becoming swollen, red and sore
What happens if it goes untreated?
- Gum disease can lead to: bad breath and a bad taste in the mouth your gums shrinking
- your teeth becoming loose or falling out
How is it treated?
In the early stages, your dentist will:
- give you advice about keeping your teeth clean, such as using interdental brushes
- advise you to stop smoking, if you smoke
- advise you to get your teeth cleaned by a hygienist
If your gum disease is serious, you may need:
- to have deep cleaning under the gums
- to have some teeth removed
- gum surgery
Meanwhile, some 20 per cent of people living in the south of England said they can afford private dental care if they cannot find an NHS dentist, compared to seven per cent in the north.
Healthwatch England said there was a ‘twin crisis’ of access and affordability in NHS dentistry.
The body has called for the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care to reform the health service’s contract with dentists.
It comes after the Association of Dental Groups found that 2,000 dentists quit the NHS last year.
Louise Ansari, national director at Healthwatch England, said: ‘Access to NHS dentistry has been one of the most significant issues people have raised with us in the last two years.
‘The shortage of NHS appointments is creating a two-tier dental system, which widens inequalities and damages the health of the most disadvantaged communities.
Ms Ansari added that the cost of living crisis will mean affording private dental care will be out of reach of millions, widening health inequalities.
‘This needs urgent attention if the Government is to achieve its levelling-up plan and tackle health disparities.
‘We are once again calling on the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England for greater ambition and urgency from NHS dental reform plans to create a fair and inclusive dental service.
‘We strongly recommend that a new dental contract is in place before Integrated Care Systems take on formal responsibility for dentistry from next April.’
Healthwatch Somerset manager Gill Keniston-Goble said: ‘In the past year, 22 per cent of our feedback has been about people not being able to find an NHS dentist.
‘People are telling us they have called many dentists but cannot find one taking new patients. We are also hearing from the public that NHS England is advising there are no dentists taking new NHS patients in Somerset.’
Ms Keniston-Goble added the organisation was also being told elderly care home residents were being removed from NHS dentists’ patient lists as they were unable to visit during the pandemic.
Shawn Charlwood, chair of the British Dental Association’s general dental practice committee, said: ‘For over a decade this service has been running on empty, our patients paying more just so the Treasury can pay less.
‘Choices made by Government mean dentists are now walking away from the NHS while millions go without the care they need.
‘A problem made in Whitehall needs to be fixed in Whitehall, with real reform and fair funding.’
An NHS spokesperson said action was being taken on the crisis in dental care including a £50million funding boost to fund urgent care by NHS dental patients.