As dentists we've known, for too long, that tooth decay is mainly a preventable disease. And yet little action has been taken, especially to stem the rising tide of oral health inequalities across the UK, and particularly amongst children.
That's why we were heartened to see Parliament speaking up on our behalf, and on behalf of future generations of children, at a debate in Westminster on 31 October.
You made a difference
We asked you to contact your MP to highlight the issues dentists are facing, and the impact on patient care.
And you did, hundreds of you – I thank you so much for taking the time to do this, it shows the power we have to support you, as a professional association, and the power you have, as frontline dentists, to make the case for a better deal for dentistry, and a better deal for our patients.
Prior to the event, we worked hard behind the scenes, talking to stakeholders, and briefing MPs on the need for action, showing that our issues are not being given the consideration they need.
We were pleased that Labour MP Steve McCabe, has been listening, and he secured this debate in Westminster focusing on children's oral health. It was a well-attended event, and we were delighted to see so much cross-party support for getting a better deal for children's oral health.
Many echoed our calls for this to be tackled as a UK-wide problem, rather than a piece-meal approach, and for real prevention to be at the heart of any schemes, backed up with the necessary funding.
Highlighting the shocking state of children's teeth
Opening the debate, Steve McCabe MP, highlighted the shocking stats on young children attending hospital and needing general anaesthetics for treating tooth decay. He also raised the issue of the rising problem of clawback for dentists, and he called for this money to be put back into dentistry.
Sir Paul Beresford, the Conservative MP for Mole Valley, and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dentistry and Oral Health, also highlighted the "horrific" stats on child dental health and said that, "..prevention must be the way forward".
Judith Cummins, the Labour MP for Bradford South, said that she believed momentum was building for change in Government oral health policy and that inaction was not an option. She echoed our point that dentistry is often the 'Cinderella service' of the NHS.
Other MPs, including Wendy Morton, the Conservative MP for Aldridge-Brownhills stressed that we needed innovative new schemes to ensure children are educated about dental health and tooth brushing.
Maggie Throup, the Conservative MP for Erewash , highlighted the link between poor oral health and other health conditions, like obesity. She suggested that these were major public health issues and joined-up measures should be put in place to tackle these problems head on – she said: "If tooth decay was made a priority for the NHS, a great deal of money would be saved."
The issue of children attending hospital for general anaesthetics was brought to the fore by Dr Caroline Johnson, the Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, and member of the Health Select Committee.
As a consultant paediatrician, she said she had personal experience of children coming to her hospital with tooth decay caused by excessive sugar consumption and a lack of brushing.
She very rightly pointed out that: '…behind the statistics there are children who are in pain and discomfort. They cannot sleep, which affects their educational performance. As they get older, they do not want to smile because of the embarrassment and discomfort it causes, and that has an impact on their ability to socialise with other children."
Need for UK-wide coordinated action and funding
For us this debate was more than just about what England can do, and that's why we encouraged dentists from all four of the UK countries to ask their MPs to attend and speak up on this important issue.
Dr Philippa Whitford MP, the SNP Health Spokesperson, stressed that Childsmile had transformed dental health in Scotland, although she insisted more work was still needed. She felt that children losing their teeth must be seen as a health failure and highlighted the flaws of the UDA system in England.
Northern Ireland representatives also spoke up, with the DUP Health Spokesman, Jim Shannon MP, pointing out that Northern Ireland is at the bottom of the league table for oral health and that drastic action is need. He insisted funding was necessary to do more for children's teeth in school and in healthcare settings.
Andrew Selous, the Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire, and a member of the Health Select Committee, highlighted the wider impact poor oral health can have, including affecting confidence and life chances. He said that we should learn from the example of Childsmile in Scotland and see the economic, as well as health, benefits a scheme like this could have.
Colleen Fletcher, the Labour MP for Coventry North East, said that when it came to oral health, children had nothing to smile about. She pointed out that every area in the country was affected by a disease that should be entirely preventable.
A health emergency?
The Shadow Minister for Health and Community Health, Julie Cooper MP, said that we were experiencing a health emergency. She pointed to the fact that Cornwall had reported, just that week, that a backlog of 14,000 people waiting to see an NHS dentist, and that some people were traveling up to 70 miles to see a dentist.
She said she hoped Health Minister, Steve Brine, would outline his plans to reform the dental contract in England, stressing the new contract needed to have prevention and public health at its heart, as well as be sustainable for dental practices.
She called for a national public health education programme and praised the work of Childsmile, calling for England to go further and learn from the devolved governments' experience. She quoted a comment I've made, saying: "These shocking statistics are rooted in an abject failure by government to tackle a preventable disease."
In response the Health Minister responsible for dentistry, Steve Brine, said that dentists played a "vital role" in the NHS and that our contribution was crucial to delivering the Government's wider health and public health aims. He also reiterated the Government's commitment to introducing a new NHS dental contract.
Now is the time for action
But 'commitment' needs to be backed up by action.
We were pleased to hear Steve McCabe MP pointing out that dentistry has been 'largely neglected' and omitted from the future NHS plans.
And he made this point clearly: "Addressing tooth decay is not complicated; we know what works, and the actions I have outlined today could make a real difference."
We know the fight is far from over. We will not rest until real action is taken to address these issues and dentistry is given the tools it needs to improve our oral health. We will be meeting with Steve Brine to reinforce all the issues raised and push to move things forward.
We hope to have your continued support in doing this, so please, continue to follow our campaign and together, I believe we can change things for the better.
Tackling oral health inequalities
We will continue to campaign on the issues of oral health inequalities and dental contract reform.
If you'd like to be kept informed of developments, please ensure your details are up to date on your MyBDA record and tick the box to sign up to our regular enewsletter.