West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds sees ever more dental patients turning to A&E for help, figures reveal
Hundreds of patients with dental problems attended West Suffolk Hospital’s A&E last year, new figures have revealed as a ‘major crisis’ over dentistry access continues to grip the county.
In 2021, 344 people turned to the emergency department at the Bury St Edmunds hospital to relieve issues with their teeth – a figure which has gradually increased over the last four years as NHS services at dental clinics have dwindled with problems cited with the NHS dental contract.
The data, released by West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by SuffolkNews, shows that 308 of those patients received some form of treatment – the majority receiving verbal or written advice or prescriptions/medicines.
In 2018, A&E dental attendance stood at 178 with 232 the following year, 238 in 2020 and it has seen 90 patients so far this year.
The most common problems were dental abscess (694 since 2018), caries (159), toothache (105) and infection (67).
Toothless in England, which is calling for reforms to the NHS dental contract that will encourage dentists to provide NHS treatments, dubbed the figures ‘truly shocking’ and said it was ‘time for the government to stop prevaricating’.
The contract, with dentists paid a flat fee for services, has been branded by the British Dental Association as ‘not fit for purpose’ and last year dental practice Sycamore House, in Bury St Edmunds, slashed its NHS services after the contract pushed it to the ‘edge of viability’.
At the time, they said the contract and funding arrangements had become a ‘toxic cocktail of targets, claw-backs and penalties’.
Healthwatch Suffolk said with the lack of NHS provision, people were ‘desperately resorting’ to contacting their GP practices and A&E departments – ‘placing additional pressure on already stretched services’.
Meanwhile, a 26-year-old Bury St Edmunds woman revealed she had no option but to turn to A&E for help which resulted in emergency surgery.
To solve the crisis, NHS England says it is inviting NHS contract holders to take on extra activity and MP Jo Churchill has pressed the Secretary of State to ‘find a solution to fix services in dental deserts like Bury St Edmunds’.
Last June, Pippa Phipps, 26, of Bury St Edmunds, went to A&E after a root canal at James Paget University Hospital – to treat a problem which developed while away in Hemsby – led to an abscess.
“I could barely talk or swallow without it hurting,” she said.
Miss Phipps went straight to Ipswich Hospital as she felt she was more likely to receive treatment than if she went to West Suffolk.
She was transferred to Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital for an emergency operation to remove two teeth.
Last week, Miss Phipps also sought help from Dentaid in Bury for a cracked tooth and an infection. She was one of he first people there at the unit on Thursday and the charity removed the tooth but she was ‘shocked’ at the large numbers who needed treatment.
Dentaid saw 33 patients in Bury including three children, with most needing painful teeth to be extracted or fillings.
The charity also gave everyone oral cancer checks and dental health advice.
Miss Phipps said she moved away from Bury for a period and, when she returned, was unable to find an NHS dentist.
“I’m on disability benefits and universal credit so there is literally no way I can afford to get a private dentist,” she said.
“It’s just disgraceful, it isn’t just affecting us adults, it’s affecting children who really need to know about oral hygiene – it’s a life skill but without going to a dentist they’re not going to know.
“Us adults putting a strain on A&E can’t be helped. If it has to happen you have to do it, there’s no other way around it.”
According to the FOI figures, between 2018 to 2022, 770 patients with dental problems had prescription/medicines prepared to take away, 935 were given verbal advice and 866 written guidance, while 687 had their vital signs recorded.
A spokesman for Toothless in England said the data demonstrated the ‘negative impact of the dental crisis on Suffolk’s hospital A&E departments’.
The campaign group has received comments on its Facebook groups from people across the country who have taken matters into their own hands – overdoing self-medication, drinking copious amounts of whisky to numb the pain before pulling out their own teeth as well as heating up needles on a hob to lance their abscesses.
“This is a dental crisis that affects every corner of the country,” he added.
“Stories you would normally read in a Dickensian novel are being experienced in the 21st century, here in the fifth richest economy in the world.
“It’s time for the government to stop prevaricating and for them to reform and properly fund the NHS dental contract as a matter or urgency.”
Healthwatch England recently found four out of five people were struggling to access NHS dental treatment.
As families struggle with the cost of living crisis, Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, said they were concerned that health inequalities ‘will grow further unless direct action is taken now’.
The organisation is part of the dentistry task force of leaders which shares intelligence and agrees actions to improve dental care.
He said: “We will continue to share people’s experiences with decision-makers at local and regional levels of the NHS, in the hope that it will help voice the reality of the current situation and bring about improvement.”
He said dental practices were 'small businesses facing rising costs, workforce shortages, increasing backlogs in the system, whilst fighting a tidal wave of growing need'.
Earlier this year, talks began for a dental school to be formed in Ipswich to solve issues with recruitment and retention of staff.
An NHS spokesman in the East of England said they were committed to ensuring everyone had access ‘high quality’ dental care and were working with providers to improve access including inviting NHS contract holders to take on ‘additional activity’.
“Urgent dental care is available for those who need it, and people should use the NHS 111 service for advice on where to go.”
Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill said she had raised the lack of NHS dentistry in Suffolk with her colleagues on a number of occasions including last Thursday when she spoke to the Secretary of State about proposals to ‘find a solution to fix dentistry services in dental deserts like Bury St Edmunds’.
“I am told that the Department of Health and Social Care will have more to say on these proposals in the near future and I will continue to push for more NHS dentists in our area so people don’t have to visit A&E for urgent dental care,” she said.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said it had given the NHS £50 million to fund up to 350,000 extra dental appointments and were expanding the dentistry workforce.
He added: “We are also working closely with the NHS to reform the dental system so that dentists are paid for the work they do, and are currently negotiating improvements to the contract with the British Dental Association.”