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NHS dentistry: Recovery stalling with over a million appointments lost since lockdown

The British Dental Association has warned the recovery of NHS dentistry in Northern Ireland is stalling and cuts could prove fatal as new data lifts the lid on a service in crisis.

General Dental Services Statistics for Northern Ireland 2022/23 show how far from ‘business as usual’ the service remains impact of ongoing access problems. 464,000 examinations were performed on adults in 2022/23, compared to 883,680 in 2019/20.

The data shows well over a year’s worth of dentistry has been lost in Northern Ireland since lockdown – with 1.2 million fewer patients seen, including nearly 400,000 children. Around 1.04m patients were seen on average annually before COVID struck. The BDA stress that ongoing access problems are fuelling an unprecedented backlog as patients present with higher levels of need, that means more time in the chair.

These pressures are stretching to breaking point the high volume/low margin model the service works to, where soaring costs are also leaving many practices delivering some NHS treatments at a loss.

The professional body has stressed these pressures, combined with the very limited recovery made in Northern Ireland’s most deprived communities, is set to widen already deep oral health inequalities. NI residents are already twice as likely to have filled teeth as their counterparts in England, and children are three times as likely to have multiple teeth extracted under General Anaesthetic.

Data comes as the prospect of savage cuts looms for the Health Service in Northern Ireland. In an open letter sent last month to Peter May, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, representatives of every field of practice in Northern Ireland stressed "If the axe falls on dentistry - indeed if there is a failure to provide needed investment - this service faces collapse. The price will be paid by patients across Northern Ireland."

Ciara Gallagher, Chair of the British Dental Association’s Northern Ireland Dental Practice Committee, said:

“NHS dentistry in Northern Ireland has not bounced back. The reality is practices facing down an unprecedented backlog, working to a broken system, without a plan or needed support.

“Adding cuts to the mix could prove fatal for this service. The patients who need us most will be the ones hit the hardest.”

News comes as Grosvenor Dental Care, based at Grosvenor Road in West Belfast, has advised the Department of Health’s Business Services Organisation that after long and careful review of the sustainability of the service and having explored all other possible options, it has regrettably reached the decision to cease operations and will close in October 2023.

Ciara Gallagher added:

“Dedicated NHS dentists across Northern Ireland are in an impossible position. No health professional should be expected to cover the costs of care out their own pocket.

“Failure to address the rising costs of NHS dental care has pushed the service to the brink. Without an urgent rescue plan, this won’t be the last practice to head down this road.”