Dave Cottam on why patient cancellations and staffing problems mean government must take a reality check in the new lockdown.
Practices are open and safe, but with the country back in lockdown, patients are voting with their feet.
As COVID rates surge to new levels, so are cancellations. A critical number of dental staff are also sick, self-isolating or struggling to secure childcare. So, we’ve gathered the evidence, on where the public stand and what our members are seeing at the coal face to show that the government must change tack on targets.
NHS Targets that were always hard to justify now look impossible to deliver, leaving scores of dedicated practices set to go to the wall. All practices - NHS and private - need support, now more than ever. Here’s what you need to know:
Less likely to seek care (and more likely to cancel)
We asked the leading pollsters YouGov to see where the public stand in this new lockdown in relation to dental care. The results couldn’t be clearer.
Nearly half (46%) of the public are now less likely to even attempt to seek routine dental care. 29% of people are much less likely. Those patients in real dental pain still need us - but even so one in six say they are now likely to stay away.
This speaks to the ludicrous message these targets sent out. Dentists simply won’t be able to churn through routine appointments to meet their arbitrary NHS targets at this time. It is time for a reality check that allows dentists to focus on the patients who really need us and who are largely still willing to attend.
What of cancellations? This is also a big problem. Again, nearly half of the public indicate they would be likely to cancel an appointment at this time.
As Chief Medical Officer Prof Whitty has noted, “the next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of the pandemic”. And it is abundantly clear to anyone prepared to look at these numbers, that targets should not be forced on dentists in these circumstances.
Practices are feeling the pinch
Our polling has confirmed what colleagues across the country already know. We reached out to practices across England at the end of their first working week in January. Nearly 80% are reporting cancellations and do not attends are higher than before the Christmas break, 43% stating they are much higher.
Practices already operating at a fraction of their former capacity are being squeezed even further. But problems are not limited to patients. Their understandable unwillingness to attend is going hand in hand with unprecedented staffing problems.
Over half of practices report that staff self-isolating is now having a high impact on their ability to provide services. Nearly as many are seeing the impact of COVID infection. And once again, lockdown and needless ambiguity over key worker status sees childcare availability emerge as a major issue.
We need change
All practices are at risk. Historic injustices on business rates relief, and issues accessing government loans need to be back on the agenda. That’s why, we have mobilised thousands of our members to reach out to their MPs.
It is clear to all that NHS targets cannot function in this environment - and ongoing support for all practices is required if we’re going to avoid permanent closures and access problems that could take years to address.
To their credit, Ministers have taken a fairly pragmatic approach during this pandemic. From facemasks to furlough, when the facts have changed, so have the policies. Dentistry cannot be the one exception.
Chair, General Dental Practice Committee