People in England are living in pain because they are unable to get an NHS dentist appointment, a watchdog has found.
Healthwatch England, an NHS body which represents patients, said the problem has been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis and that a health divide had opened up between wealthy people and poorer people who cannot afford private care.
Residents in the whole county of Somerset are unable to register as new NHS dentist patients for routine care, the group said, while some elderly people in care homes have been struck off NHS dentist lists after not being able to attend an appointment during the pandemic.
Louise Ansari, national director of Healthwatch England, said: “There is now a deepening crisis.
“The shortage of NHS appointments is creating a two-tier dental system, which widens inequalities and damages the health of the most disadvantaged communities.
“With millions of households bearing the brunt of the escalating living costs, private treatment is simply not an option and even NHS charges can be a challenge. This needs urgent attention if the Government is to achieve its levelling-up plan and tackle health disparities.”
How do I find an NHS dentist near me?
There is no need to register with a dentist in the same way as with a GP because you are not bound to a catchment area.
You can find a dental surgery that is convenient for you, whether it’s near your home or your work.
Enter a town, city or postcode into this online checker to find options in the area you wish to book an appointment.
The NHS warns that dental surgeries will not always have the capacity to take on new NHS patients. “You may have to join a waiting list, look for a different dentist who is taking on new NHS patients, or be seen privately,” it says.
Once you find a dental surgery, you may have to fill in a registration form at your first visit, which is just to add you to their patient database.
This does not mean you have guaranteed access to an NHS dental appointment in the future.
If after contacting several dental surgeries you still cannot find a dentist accepting NHS patients, call NHS England’s customer contact centre on 0300 311 2233.
If you think you need urgent care, contact your usual dentist as some surgeries offer emergency dental slots and will provide care if clinically necessary.
Only visit A&E in serious circumstances, such as:
- Severe pain
- Heavy bleeding
- Injuries to the face, mouth or teeth
If you’re not sure whether you should go to A&E, contact NHS 111, who will be able to advise you.
How do I book a dentist appointment?
Once you have found a dentist that is accepting new NHS patients you can book an appointment with them directly.
You can either do this via their website or by calling them.
Why is there a dentistry crisis?
Healthwatch England polling found about two in five (41 per cent) people have experienced difficulty booking an NHS dental appointment.
The capacity struggles come in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
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.
“One piece of feedback we received was about dental care in care homes – residents who were registered with NHS dentists pre-Covid have now been removed from their original dental practices lists because they were unable to visit as they were bed-bound or immobile.”
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 has 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 the appointment,” she said.
“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.”
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.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’ve given the NHS £50m to fund up to 350,000 extra dental appointments and we are growing the workforce so people can get the oral care they need.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve asked dentists to prioritise available capacity on vulnerable groups and those with an urgent need, while continuing to provide free dental care to groups such as pregnant women, young people, and those on low-income benefits.
“Now as we learn to live with Covid, we are committed to levelling up health outcomes – including on dental issues – across the country, and ensuring that everyone has the chance to live longer and healthier lives, regardless of background.”