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90 percent of NHS dental practices in the UK are not accepting new patients, BBC survey finds

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The British Dental Association has called the BBC’s research the most comprehensive and granular assessment of patient access in the history of the service.

The findings are revealed in an exclusive BBC iPlayer documentary Disappearing Dentists (available on Monday 8 August) and speaks to some of the desperate people in excruciating pain unable to get an NHS appointment. Some have taken shocking and extreme steps, including removing their own teeth with pliers, to deal with their dental problems because they cannot afford private care.

BBC researchers attempted to call every dental practice in the UK that holds an NHS contract to understand which people and which areas were struggling the most with access to NHS dentistry. In total the BBC contacted 8,523 practices across the UK. After excluding some practices because they didn’t offer general NHS treatment or were unresponsive, the total number of practices identified as doing NHS work was 6,880. The BBC found that:

Adult Patients

• In the UK, 90 percent of NHS practices were not accepting new adult patients – 6,193 of 6,880.

• Of those practices not taking on adults in the UK, 25 percent (1,572) said they had an open waiting list, and 17 percent (1,039) said the wait time was a year or longer, or were unable to say how long it would be.

• Out of 217 local authorities in the UK, BBC researchers did not successfully reach any practices accepting new adult NHS patients in 77 (35 percent) local authorities.

Child patients

• In the UK, 80 percent of NHS practices were not accepting new child patients – 5,506 of 6,880.

• Of those practices not taking on children in the UK, 1,480 (27 percent) said they had an open waiting list, and 16 percent (902) said wait time was a year or longer, or were unable to say how long it would be.

• Out of 217 local authorities in the UK, BBC researchers did not successfully reach any practices accepting new child NHS patients in 25 (12 percent) of local authorities.

• Over 200 practices that said they would only take on children if their parents were private patients at the clinic. Not all practices were asked this question.

BBC News has provided an interactive map so people can check what access to NHS dentistry is like in their local area, available on BBC News online. It also identified the worst areas in the UK, considered ‘dental deserts’, where the BBC could only find a small number of practices which would accept new adult patients, these are:

• The South West of England- 98 percent
• Yorkshire and the Humber – 98 percent
• The North West of England – 98 percent
• The East Midlands – 97 percent

The documentary also explores the reasons behind why so many practices are turning away NHS patients. Many dentists blame the contracts they have been working under since 2006, which they say fails to cover the cost of treatments and leaves them out of pocket.

Eddie Crouch, British Dental Association Chair, says: “What we’re seeing is that dentists are having to cross-subsidise NHS provision by providing private care. And I think people are getting fed up of doing that. There’s a limit to how benevolent you can be. But when you’re carrying out a piece of treatment, that at the end of that treatment, you haven’t earned any income for a business, then there is no logic to staying in that system.”

Asked whether we are witnessing the death of NHS dentistry, Nigel Edwards, Chief Executive, Nuffield Trust, says: “Dentistry is in significant trouble. I think it’s premature to say we’re witnessing the death of it. But in certain areas, it’s on life support, and action will need to be taken. There doesn’t seem to be any real appetite for the sort of big structural and investment decisions that are required to fix NHS dentistry.”

BBC News asked the government for a response. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Improving patient access to NHS dental care is a government priority and the new reforms to the dental contract announced last month are an important step, allowing the best performing practices to see more patients, making better use of the range of professionals working in the sector such as dental therapists, hygienists and nurses, while also rewarding dentists more fairly for providing more complex care.

“The NHS commits around £3 billion to dentistry each year and have made an extra £50 million to help bust the Covid backlogs, building on the unprecedented £1.7 billion support we provided during the pandemic, to protect teams and patients by paying dental practices for the work they would normally have carried out if it were not for Covid regulations.”

A spokesperson from the Scottish Government says: “A record number of people are registered with a NHS dentist, more than 95 percent of the population of Scotland.”