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Calling it quits: only urgent change can save NHS dentistry

A practice owner writes on why government must make immediate, meaningful changes to a rotten system.

Anonymous dentist

I've asked my MP to attend the debate in Parliament to stress the need for urgent reform of the NHS dental service.

The BDA has worked to get a major debate on access to NHS dentistry in Parliament on 10 February – please write to your MP now. The more people who speak up, the stronger our voice will be.

I have worked as an NHS dentist ever since I qualified in 1996, and in 2004 my wife and I bought an NHS dental practice. At the moment I, along with three associate dentists care for approximately 11,000 NHS patients.

Since the introduction of the current Unit of Dental Activity (UDA) system in 2006 the stress of providing NHS dentistry has worsened year on year and now this has come to a head. The pressures that NHS England are piling on with the UDA targets, despite the ongoing pandemic where we are seeing Covid cases rise, are immense.

A crisis in staffing

Of our three current associate dentists, two have just handed in their notice, soon to be moving to private dental practices. The third is actively looking for a private role and has had interviews in private practices, so it is only a matter of time before all three have gone. This is purely down to the current NHS system - the treadmill way of having to work to achieve targets.

I cannot care for 11,000 patients myself.

That will leave just me providing fully NHS dental care in my area.

Many of our patients are on benefits or have low incomes and with a huge increase in energy bills on the horizon this number is bound to increase. I cannot care for 11,000 patients myself.

Reaching the point of burnout

I have had just three days off during the last 12 months, desperately trying to see as many patients as I can. I'm tired, not sleeping, close to burning out and have never felt stress and pressure like I am at the moment.

Without something to attract new dentists, we will have no choice but to refer over 7,500 of our patients back to the NHS waiting list.

I'm not sure how much longer I can sustain this.

Unless NHS England shows imminent improvement to the NHS Dental contract, and with so many practices turning private and offering much more attractive remuneration packages than we can offer, I can't see any way of attracting new dentists to work in our NHS practice.

Once all our current associates are gone, without something to attract new dentists, we will have no choice but to refer over 7,500 of our patients back to the NHS waiting list.

We need a new NHS dental contract

I have asked my MP to urge the government to make immediate, meaningful changes to the way NHS dentists are paid that will help me attract new dentists to my area to provide NHS dental care.

The old PDS pilot scheme we were involved in before UDAs were forced upon us actually attracted dentists into the NHS. NHS practices received a regular monthly income without the pressures of targets so dentists were happier as they were able to provide good, preventative care to their patients.

Patients liked it as they received the care they needed and deserve, and the practice was a much happier place.

If the government re-introduced this, even just for a couple of years whilst another better thought-out system than UDAs was agreed, the number of dentists actually wanting to provide NHS care would increase.

Even returning to the old GDS fee-per-item system would be better than the current system and give us a chance of retaining and attracting dentists to our practice.

Stem the exodus of dentists

We need government to do something now - if UDAs remain after 31 March this year, I fear the exodus of dentists from NHS to private will increase exponentially.

The number of patients looking for NHS care will massively increase, and if we are unable to attract dentists to provide that care our NHS dental practice will probably not survive.

A debate on NHS dentistry is taking place on 10 February 2022.

Write to your MP now