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Nearly half of dentists severing ties with NHS as government fails to move forward on reform

The British Dental Association warns an unprecedented collapse in NHS commitment among dentists in England could spell the end for the service without radical and urgent action from government.

As the professional body for dentists prepares to give evidence today to the Health and Social Care Committee inquiry into recruitment and retention across healthcare, a new survey of 2,204 high street dentists in England reveals:

  • Nearly half (45%) report they have reduced their NHS commitment since the onset of the pandemic, by an average of over a quarter.
  • 75% say they are now likely to reduce – or further reduce – their NHS commitment in the next 12 months, the highest level in any BDA surveys since the first lockdown. 45% say they are likely to go fully private. Nearly half (47%) indicate they are likely to change career or seek early retirement.
  • Two thirds (65%) say their practices have unfilled vacancies for dentists. 82% of those reporting vacancies cite working under the current discredited NHS contract as a key barrier to filling posts, over half (59%) cite issues relating to remuneration levels, and 30% difficulties attracting candidates to remote, rural or deprived communities. 29% say posts have been unfilled for more than a year.
  • Nearly 9 in 10 (87%) state they have experienced symptoms of stress, burnout or other mental health problems in the last 12 months, with 86% reporting colleagues in their practice have received physical or verbal abuse from patients. 75% say they are unable to spend sufficient time with patients, and only 25% say they are able to offer the kind of care they want to provide.

Since the start of the pandemic thousands of dentists are understood to have moved away from NHS work entirely. However, BDA survey data suggests that this underestimates the real drop in NHS capacity as the proportion of dentists who report having reduced their NHS commitment is 10 times higher than those who report having quit altogether. Most dentists provide a mixture of NHS and private care - in varying proportions. The BDA has established that most of the dentists reporting a move into exclusively private dentistry have come from a background of providing predominantly NHS care.

The BDA stresses this new data gives the clearest indication yet of the scale of the crisis facing NHS dentistry. The government makes no official estimates on the number of 'Whole Time Equivalent' NHS dentists in England, with a practitioner providing a single NHS treatment in a year carrying the same weight in workforce data as one providing NHS-only care.

The discredited NHS dental contract, imposed in 2006, puts government targets ahead of patient need, effectively setting a limit on the numbers of NHS treatments a dentist can do in a year. Dubbed 'unfit for purpose' by the Health Select Committee fourteen years ago, the system funds care for little over half the population and sets perverse incentives to dentists, rewarding them the same for doing one filling as ten.

While the government has promised reform, there is no timeline for when this system will end, nor is there any indication the Treasury is willing to commit funds to underpin the rebuild of the service. After a decade of cuts NHS dentistry would require an additional £880m per year simply to restore resources to 2010 levels.

Shawn Charlwood, Chair of the British Dental Association's General Dental Practice Committee, said:

"Overstretched and underfunded, thousands of dentists have already left the NHS, but many more have begun severing their ties.

"This is how NHS dentistry will die, a lingering decline that unchecked will leave millions of patients with no options.

"This Government has ensured many dentists cannot see a future in this service. Without urgent reform and adequate funding there is little hope we can halt this exodus."