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Dentists: workforce plan latest attempt to fill a leaky bucket

The British Dental Association warn plans to boost dentist numbers represents an exercise in futility without first tackling the failed, underfunded systems driving practitioners out of the NHS.

The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, set to be published tomorrow, is understood to state ambitions to train thousands more dentists by 2030.

The professional body stress the government has only brought forward minor tweaks to the discredited NHS contract fuelling retention problems, and with it the access crisis facing millions across England. In the absence of change, dentist leaders say any gains in capacity risk being lost, and at pace.

Over half (50.3%) of high street dentists responding to recent BDA surveys reported having reduced NHS commitments since the start of the pandemic. 74% stated their intention to reduce - or further reduce – their NHS work. This movement is not being tracked by official data, which counts heads, rather than commitment, and gives dentists who do just one NHS check-up a year the same weight as an NHS full-timer.

The BDA has long advocated a fully funded workforce plan to address the ongoing crisis in the service. However, with the NHS's 75th birthday just days away recent government pledges for a fast tracked 'recovery plan' for NHS dentistry have yet to bear fruit.

Contrary to consistent claims made by the PM that the number of NHS dentists has bounced back, official figures secured last month by the BDA under freedom of information indicate just 23,577 dentists performed NHS work in the 2022/23 financial year, over 1,100 down on numbers pre-pandemic, a level not seen since 2012.

British Dental Association Chair Eddie Crouch said:

"This workforce plan is government's latest attempt to fill a leaky bucket.

"Failed contracts and underfunding are fuelling an exodus from this service. There's little point training more dentists who don't want to work in the NHS."

The dental regulator, the General Dental Council, has recently gone on the record stating bringing in more dentists will not solve problems fuelled by broken contracts.

"Improving the throughput of those from overseas who want to be registered in this country is the right thing to be doing," said GDC chair, Lord Toby Harris at the Annual Conference of Local Dental Committees earlier this month. "But it is not some magic bullet that will solve the problems in NHS dentistry."

"If the contractual terms by which NHS services are provided are unattractive to many dentists currently on the register, then there is no reason why those same terms will be any more attractive to new registrants – whether they are from overseas or who qualify here," he added.

The Government has consistently championed the import of overseas dentists. There are currently around 1,500 candidates waiting to sit Part 1 of the Overseas Registration Examination (ORE). While the BDA supports urgent action to deal with this huge backlog, it does not represent a solution to the access crisis.