In England, only a third of adults – and half of children – now have access to an NHS dentist. As those in pain turn to charity-run clinics for help, can anything stop the rot?
It is over an hour before the emergency dental clinic is due to open, but Jodie Manning is taking no chances. She hasn’t been able to eat for four days – “I can’t physically bite down any more” – and is determined to get an appointment.
Aged 19, she has been to hospital with severe toothache “three-and-a-half times” in the previous year. The half is when they sent her home without treatment; on the other occasions, she was kept in overnight after collapsing from pain and dehydration, when even drinking liquids hurt her swollen mouth. Morphine has become her crutch: she fell asleep in college recently after taking the powerful painkiller. Like many of those waiting grimly in line, she has been struck off by her NHS dentist after not attending for two years, even though surgeries were shut to all but emergency cases during Covid.
The same desperation can be seen across England, particularly in the north and east. Only a third of adults – and less than half of English children – now have access to an NHS dentist, according to the Association of Dental Groups (ADG). At the same time, three million people suffer from oral pain and two million have undertaken a round trip of 40 miles for treatment, the ADG calculated recently, calling dentistry “the forgotten healthcare service”. Tooth extraction is now the most common reason for a child to be admitted to hospital, costing the NHS £50m a year.
The decline of NHS dentistry has deep roots. Years of underfunding and the current government contract, blamed for problems with burnout, recruitment and retention. Dentists are paid a flat fee for services regardless of how long a treatment takes (they get the same amount if they extract one tooth or five, for example). Covid exacerbated existing challenges, with the airborne disease posing a health risk for dentists peering into strangers’ mouths all day.
As the British Dental Association put it in its most recent briefing: “NHS dentistry is facing an existential threat and patients face a growing crisis in access, with the service hanging by a thread.”
Source: The Guardian, 24 May 2022