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​Access problems risk wiping out decades of progress on oral health

The British Dental Association has warned the latest official research on the impact of the pandemic on access to dental care in England underlines the need for urgent and fundamental reform, with decades of improvements to the nation's oral health now at risk.

Official statistics: The impact of COVID-19 on access to dental care

Based on the findings of the 2021 decennial Adult Oral Health Survey, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) found that during the first year of the pandemic only 43% of those who reported toothache or other pain reported receiving complete professional treatment. 19% received temporary treatment, 23% were given advice on how to manage the problem on their own, 25% received a prescription for antibiotics and 11% received no professional treatment or advice.

Those in the poorest communities suffered the most, with 24% of those in the most affluent communities reporting toothache or other oral pain, compared to 41% in the most deprived.

Dentist leaders stress England's oral health gap will inevitably widen as a result of ongoing access challenges. BBC research in August 2022 reported 9 in 10 practices were unable to take on new adult NHS patients. Over 47m NHS dental appointments have been lost since lockdown in England alone.

The Health and Social Care Committee has just launched an inquiry into access problems in NHS dentistry. Ministers recently announced minor tweaks to the discredited NHS dental contract fuelling the current crisis, without a penny of new investment attached. The system continues to put government targets ahead of patient care, and funds services for barely half the population.

The number of dentists delivering NHS care in England has fallen to 2017/18 levels, and BDA surveys suggest that for every dentist leaving the NHS since lockdown, 10 have reduced their NHS commitment by significant amounts. This exodus from the NHS will have a major and lasting impact on patients' ability to access NHS dentistry, with every vacancy that goes unfilled translating into thousands of patients missing out on care.

British Dental Association Chair Eddie Crouch said:

"These access problems are still with us. Political choices mean they are set to become the norm, as dentists walk away from a broken, underfunded system.

"NHS dentistry can be saved, but we're yet to see evidence government has the ambition to do so.

"Decades of progress in the nation's oral health risk going into reverse. If Ministers fail to turn the page the price will be paid in our poorest communities."