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500 dentists call on NI Government to ensure service survives pandemic

The British Dental Association NI and 500 high street dentists have written to Health Minister Robin Swann to call time on the dire situation facing Health Service dentistry, urging the Department of Health to set out tangible solutions to overhaul the decades-old General Dental Services (GDS) contract.

18 months on from the start of this pandemic, signatories state that many are now burned out and utterly demoralised, and that the present situation in Health Service dentistry has become intolerable, and unstainable. Dentists report they have been working harder than ever to meet more stringent Infection Prevention Control measures but remain “hamstrung” in the number of patients they can see in a day.

Many indicate they are now being pushed out of being able to continue to offer care under the NHS. Latest published figures show dental earnings in Northern Ireland have fallen once again, by an average of 4.2% compared with the previous year, or 36% in real terms for Associates and 43% for Practice Owners since 2008/09. Those with the highest commitment to Health Service dentistry (75% or more) have recorded the lowest earnings of all, averaging taxable income of £49,700 in 2019/20.

Practices are now facing huge challenges trying to recruit Associates and dental nurses to provide Health Service care, and the growing public access problems that have resulted post-COVID. Health Service dentistry has been on a downward trajectory for over a decade, with the service becoming increasingly financially unviable in its own right.

Dentists have urged the Department of Health to face up to the crisis in dentistry and come forward with concrete solutions aimed at modernising Health Service dentistry, and that addresses the terms and conditions associated with providing Health Service dentistry to safeguard its future.

Richard Graham, Chair of the British Dental Association’s NI Dental Practice Committee said:

“We have reached a point where the majority of NHS committed dental professionals are feeling utterly demoralised, burned-out, and concerned for the future.

“Already, we see the difficulties patients have in being able to access NHS dental services. That situation will only be compounded many times over if dentists continue to see little hope that their decades-old contract model will be replaced with something that works, both for practitioners, and the public alike. A 1990s activity-based contract model that was driven into the ground pre-COVID, has collapsed irreparably. We need an overhaul of GDS, and we need it urgently.

“Over the course of a weekend, almost half of GDPs in Northern Ireland put their name to our letter to the Minister saying 'enough is enough.'

“Without a fundamental shift of trajectory away from a race to the bottom, and meaningful work on a new GDS contract that works better for the public and practitioners alike, Health Service dentistry will not survive.”