A big part of my role at Healthwatch involves giving people the information and advice they need to access health and care services. By looking at the support requests we get coming in each month we get a broad sense of the issues that people are struggling with locally. In the last two months, I've followed up on approximately sixty requests for support. About a third of these were related to dentistry. That's a big proportion of our caseload. This isn't a new development either - we've seen more and more residents report difficulties accessing NHS dental services as the pandemic has progressed.
Why is it difficult to get an NHS dental appointment?
The shortage of NHS appointments isn't the fault of individual dental practices. The bigger picture is that not enough NHS dental provision has been commissioned nationally. This means that there is insufficient supply to meet demand. This was already the case before the pandemic, but the pandemic has made that situation much worse.
"I used the NHS website to find a dentist near me and contacted the top 10 results. Of the ones who offer NHS services, none would accept me as a patient. What is worrying is all the places that would not accept me as an NHS patient offered to accept me privately."
What does this mean for patients?
Because so many people are trying to access NHS dental services, these appointments tend to get snapped up as soon as they become available. This makes it difficult for the system to prioritise access for groups with higher levels of need. I've been contacted by pregnant women, and parents of young children, who can't find a dentist that will offer them an NHS appointment even though they are entitled to free treatment. This must feel so frustrating, and it's often difficult to find meaningful ways to help (though of course we do our best!)
Dental practices that are turning people away as NHS patients will often offer them the treatment they need if they agree to pay for it privately. Although this isn't the fault of individual practices (they need to be paid for the services they are providing), it can certainly make the experience of failing to access dental care feel worse for people who can't afford to pay.
Lack of access to ongoing NHS dental treatment can also limit the effectiveness of emergency dental services (accessed through NHS 111). Emergency treatments aren't designed to be offered in isolation. You will need follow-up appointments with a regular dentist to continue your care. This month, I've been trying to help a resident who went into hospital for an emergency dental procedure involving an overnight stay. She had called 16 dental practices about her follow-up appointments, but none of them were taking NHS patients. After her operation, she was in considerable pain and discomfort but received no instructions from the hospital about ongoing care. It's natural to feel vulnerable after an operation. When you can't see a way forward because the follow-up care you need is not available, you can experience a great deal of additional anxiety and distress.
What can you do if you're struggling to find an NHS dentist?
The rules regarding registration for dental treatment are very different from those for GP registration. To register at a particular GP practice you need to be living near that practice. However, you can register for treatment at any dental practice you like, regardless of where it is (providing they are accepting NHS patients).
- If you are able and willing to travel, you can contact dentists in other London boroughs to see if they have space. NHS quotas can vary from area to area and from month to month. By looking further afield you can increase your chances of success.
- You can find a list of dentists who have recently indicated that they are accepting NHS patients on the website Dental Choices. It's important to pay attention to the dates, as you only want to be contacting dentists that have just been added to the list (otherwise it is likely the spaces will already have been taken). The search function allows you to search by postcode and they will also show you dentists that are a little bit further away who have indicated within the last two weeks that they have spaces.