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Northern Ireland: Moving dentistry forward

Blog Author Tristen Kelso

Blog Date 03/12/2020

If ever there was an opportunity to move dentistry forward in Northern Ireland, it is now writes Tristen Kelso, BDA NI Director.


Throughout this pandemic we have kept decision makers and influencers fully informed of the challenges our dentists face.

We’ve worked hard to cultivate positive support from key politicians, the media and the public so that there is never any doubt to the overwhelming hurdles that dental teams face on a daily basis.

We have consistently used these messages to generate headlines, Assembly questions on dentistry and oral health and share personal evidence from our members. And it is having an impact.

Together, we are strengthening the voice for dentistry in Northern Ireland and, in turn, that is helping us to shape essential and tangible improvements across the profession.


Dentistry in the news

Dentistry has not been far from the headlines these past few weeks.

Our work has ensured consistent coverage, and one such example is the Belfast News Letter which last week published a comprehensive investigative series into dentistry. Many of us worked closely with journalist Philip Bradfield, to outline the issues and provide vital research to inform his coverage on GDS financial viability, private dentistry, access to care and oral cancer.

The end result is a sobering account of the realities that we know all too well. However, we are grateful to have been able to share the difficulties facing dentists with the general public.

The dentistry series featured the following:


  • Financial sustainability: Even before COVID, Dragon’s Den would have laughed at dentistry as a proposal
  • Private dentistry: Department for Economy turns down appeal for support for private side of dentistry
  • Financial support: Dentists are only NHS workers living on their savings during pandemic
  • Oral cancer: NI mouth cancer spike – sexually transmitted HPV virus linked to tonsil cancer
  • Access to care: Coronavirus: 100,000 NI dental patients could lose all access to care

Furthermore, last week our president, Paul Brennan was also interviewed on the News at One, on BBC Radio Foyle. Paul discussed the ongoing issues facing dental teams and told audiences that it might be two years before dentists are able to see patients as usual for routine services.


You can listen to Paul via the following links:


BBC Radio Foyle - The Mark Patterson Show - Listen from 14.01

BBC Radio Foyle - The News at One - 24/11/2020 - Listen from 13:21


Dentistry in the Assembly

“Our ongoing research, evidence and dogged persistence has generated a strong political interest in dentistry.”

You only have to look at the number of Assembly questions that MLAs have tabled on dentistry issues this year, to understand just how important our issues are regarded. Since the start of the pandemic, 68 Assembly questions on dentistry have been tabled by MLAs, with many of those in direct response to BDA briefings.

The 68 Assembly questions are in addition to the three Health Committee evidence sessions we have contributed to since March, plus various requests for written briefings.

Needless to say, our ongoing research, evidence and dogged persistence in our campaigning has generated a strong political interest in dentistry, and we have every intention to build on this.


Dentistry and personal stories

Our communications are often most successful when our messages are reinforced by individual dentists telling their stories.


Throughout this crisis, dentists with little or no previous media experience have stepped up and spoken out on behalf of their profession, authenticating our messages and making our cases more compelling.


Richard Graham, NIDPC Chair has been a stalwart since the outbreak, taking on the unenviable challenge of appearing on the BBC Nolan Show several times, and being a regular feature on BBC Radio Ulster and Evening Extra at the height of the crisis.


Meabh Owens and Ciara Gallagher have also excelled in communicating the first-hand frustrations faced by dentists. In last week's Belfast News Letter discussed above, Ciara provided a very poignant account of the difficulties in making Health Service dentistry stack up financially pre-COVID and how mixed practices are suffering at this time.


“Philip McLorinan’s blog from April, has become one of the BDA’s most popular blogs of 2020.”

Finally, Philip McLorinan's blog in April, a first-hand account of working in an urgent dental centre in Northern Ireland has become one of the BDA’s most popular blogs of 2020. Philip's article has received more than 12,000 views and generated a lot of attention on the UDCs.

I recognise it’s not easy to put your head above the parapet and to talk about the challenges you face professionally. I commend those dentists involved in BDA Northern Ireland who have bravely done just that on behalf of the profession.


And while much of the focus has been on the issues faced by GDS, CDS and hospital colleagues face their own trials and tribulations. Grainne Quinn, Gerry McKenna and Caroline Lappin are very much involved in the work to improve terms and conditions for our salaried cohorts, and to advance the overarching interests of dentistry and dentists here.


It isn’t only the public facing work that matters. BDA NI committee members -across all crafts, and particularly NIDPC - have spent hundreds of hours over these past months inputting into many draft FSS proposals, guidance documents and negotiations to try to secure the best possible outcomes for practitioners. This work wouldn’t have been possible without the work of our LDC representatives. 

Your experiences, your views and your voice really matter.


Dentistry and the future

“If ever there was an opportunity to move dentistry forward in Northern Ireland, it is now.”

It is important not to underestimate the impact that all of these activities have had on mitigating the worst impact of COVID-19 on the profession.

At key times during this crisis, when hope was in extremely short supply, an additional £3.8m PPE funding and an extra £5m to maintain the Financial Support Scheme (FSS) to the end of the financial year were achieved. Collectively, we shouted out, and the politicians heard us.

Equally, we continue to raise the voice of private dentistry, and call out the unacceptable lack of support from the NI Executive. We will continue to persist in this call.

As we near the end of 2020, we can take some heart that the mass COVID vaccination roll-out should start to ease the considerable disruption we’ve all faced. We all look forward to the day when the risk profile from COVID is deemed low, and enhanced PPE and fallow restrictions are no longer routine.

In the meantime, there continues to be a myriad of issues that need significant work, not only in GDS but across all crafts, and for dentistry as a whole. Many of the underlying issues that persisted pre-COVID need to be taken forward, once and for all. Alongside our committee representatives we will continue to proactively shape these conversations in the best interests of the profession, and of the general public.

If ever there was an opportunity to move dentistry forward in Northern Ireland, it is now at a time when the political, media and public interest in dentistry is high. That will be our aim as we end 2020 and look forward into 2021.


Tristen Kelso 


Tristen Kelso
BDA Northern Ireland Director