Dentistry and the impact of COVID-19

Healthwatch England urge the Government to take urgent action to address issues with access to NHS dental care as people share their poor experiences.
Dentist looking at a dental x-ray

Healthwatch England continues to hear concerns about dentistry, which were first highlighted in the "Dentistry and the impact of COVID-19" report following a 452% rise in calls and complaints to local Healthwatch.

Healthwatch England report findings

In a follow-up review of people's feedback on dentistry, Healthwatch England looked at a further 1,129 people’s experiences of accessing dental care, received between October and December 2020.

They found:

  • Access to dentistry remained difficult for more than seven in 10 people (72%).

  • Some people who actively sought dental treatment were told they would have to wait anywhere between a few months to, in one case, two years for an appointment.  

  • Access to urgent NHS treatment was difficult for both people with painful teeth, with patients being told that dental pain was not considered an “emergency”, and those who were prescribed multiple courses of antibiotics by NHS111 without being provided any further treatment.  

  • Some people said they had called over 40 practices to find an NHS dentist, and pulled their own teeth out when they couldn’t bear the pain.  

  • When dentists couldn’t offer an appointment, they advised people to buy dental repair kits to treat themselves. In one case, an individual was advised to use a nail file to deal with the sharp edges of a broken tooth.  

Healthwatch England highlighted similar issues in their report published last December, which examined what people had told us from July to September 2020 about accessing dental care.

Read the December report

The findings come after some MPs and the British Dental Association called on the Government to scrap its new targets for NHS dentists, which require them to deliver 45% of their pre-pandemic levels of dental activity.

There are concerns this is likely to push practices into prioritising appointments such as check-ups over emergency or more complex treatments.

Healthwatch England have previously called for more emphasis to be placed on solving structural issues within NHS dental services and warns dental care is facing an immediate crisis without the Government stepping up to the plate.

Sir Robert Francis QC, Chair of Healthwatch England, said:  

 “Our findings show that access to dental care is currently neither equal nor inclusive, leading to traumatic experiences for many people.   

“This provides yet more evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the human impact of years of structural issues in NHS dentistry and is now pushing it to crisis point. We are hugely concerned that this will have detrimental effects to the nation’s health for years to come.

“Although we have to grapple with the pandemic, all efforts should be made to treat those in need of urgent care and provide more accurate and up-to-date information to help people find and access NHS dental care.

“In the longer term, the Department of Health and Social Care must prioritise the importance of oral health and commit to improving access to dentistry for everyone who needs it.”

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