Dentistry access in Suffolk is branded a ‘disaster’ as NHS service availability dwindles
A healthcare watchdog says Suffolk is ‘living through a dental disaster’ as residents struggle to access NHS care for their teeth.
Healthwatch Suffolk is being ‘inundated’ with issues of residents unable to secure an appointment and one individual revealed they required ‘urgent hospital treatment’ after overdosing on painkillers to combat their symptoms.
Another said they couldn’t find a dentist to treat a tooth which was decaying.
Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, said: “Such stories are no longer a rarity, and we are concerned about the long-term impact on communities that we know are most likely to be excluded from treatment and support.”
Data shows the groups most likely to be affected are those on low incomes as well as black, asian and ethnic minority communities.
“Over the past year, we’ve seen a number of dentists in our county shut down or transition into full private practice, leaving thousands of people with no access to local dental care,” said Mr Yacoub.
“This is a problem that impacts everyone and has grown to become one of our greatest concerns.”
He added: “We are living through a dental disaster, with little to no clear sign of when these problems will ease.”
Last week, Sycamore House dental practice, in Bury St Edmunds, told patients it had decided to ‘significantly reduce’ its NHS services after the contract pushed it to the ‘edge of viability’.
Dr Hernan Morillo, dental surgeon and partner at Sycamore, said he had worked within the NHS in Bury St Edmunds since 1997 and the current contract and funding arrangements had become a ‘toxic cocktail of targets, claw-backs and penalties’.
The system, he said, was ‘failing patients and dental teams leading to access problems around the country’.
In response, the Department of Health and Social Care, pointed to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic which ‘has been a challenging time for dentists who continue to work tirelessly to provide high-quality dental care’.
A spokesman said they had supported dentists throughout including by paying contracts for dental services in full.
Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill, who as a health minister is responsible for dentistry, said services had been ‘under increasing pressure whilst operating at reduced capacity’ due to the Covid-19 crisis which has led to a ‘lack of immediate availability’.
She noted there was a ‘particular challenge’ in the East of England and certain towns in Suffolk including Bury St Edmunds with some surgeries handing their contracts back in full or part to concentrate on private patients.
However, residents took to social media following Sycamore’s announcement and felt that the shortage of NHS treatment in Bury St Edmunds predated coronavirus.
New arrangements should include making access to NHS dental services equal and affordable for everyone, regardless of where people live, their income and ethnicity - Imelda Redmond, national director of Healthwatch England
Sarah Jane Stone revealed she has been forced to seek private treatment at a cost of £3,000 and cried her ‘eyes out’ when she was told of the price.
She has tried to see an NHS dentist for five years.
“It’s disgusting that we don’t have any basic care for our teeth,” she said.
Michelle Alice noted that she had been without an NHS dentist for four years with ‘no choice but to rack up debt in going private’.
Lauren Cornish added: “Blaming the pandemic for the shocking situation around NHS dentistry is pathetic, the problem has existed for years.”
The NHS website to find a dentist also presents obstacles as details for some practices about whether they are taking on new NHS patients have not been updated for months.
Imelda Redmond, national director of Healthwatch England, called on the Government to reform dental contracts as a ‘matter of urgency’ and argued that oral health was a ‘social justice and equity issue’.
“New arrangements should include making access to NHS dental services equal and affordable for everyone, regardless of where people live, their income and ethnicity,” she said.
NHS England is working with practices to explore ways to improve access to dental services and has reminded practices of their responsibility to ensure information on the NHS website is updated.
Mrs Churchill said she was working with NHS England to ensure ‘they fulfil their obligation’ to commission dentistry services which meet the need in the area and that flexible commissioning was being encouraged.
“A full contract review is already underway, involving the profession and a broad range of stakeholders which will be in place for April 2022,” she said.
She added that anyone struggling to access a dentist should contact NHS 111 if it is an emergency or, if not, call NHS England’s customer contact centre on 0300 311 2233.