Talks begin on formation of dental school in Ipswich to tackle ongoing crisis
Early talks for a dental school to be formed in Ipswich have begun, in a bid to tackle the ongoing crisis in provision.
An East Suffolk Council scrutiny committee in October was told that the two main problems in NHS dentistry were around recruitment and retention of staff and the NHS contracts being unattractive for practices to bid for.
It heard that the lack of a dental school in the region meant that attracting dentists to the county was an issue, with some posts being vacant for two years or more.
It comes as commissioners confirmed a blitz of NHS dental procedures will be available from February 1 to tackle the backlog in appointments.
At Wednesday morning’s health scrutiny meeting, councillors were told discussions with the University of Suffolk have begun over forming a dental school in Ipswich, while plans for another in Cambridge – possibly launching as soon as September – should also aid local recruitment.
Tom Norfolk, chairman of the Local Dental Network for East Anglia, said: “The University of Suffolk is keen to set up a dental school and we are supporting that as we can. That will be great. There are lots of things around that but it’s very early stages.
“But also we just need to widen the dental workforce – we cannot rely on dentists doing all the work. Just like doctors and GP practices have a wider workforce – they have nurses who do lots of extra bits a doctor doesn’t need to do, dentistry hasn’t moved away from that. Partly it is because of national regulation and partly because it is the way it has always been done.
“We’ll widen the workforce to use increasing numbers of dental nurses, hygienists, therapists, to do different types of dentistry and prioritise prevention.
“Most dental disease is preventable so we need to look at prevention as a way of addressing those needs and prioritising groups of patients.
“We have written a dental strategy, a new way of working that prioritises patients who need it the most, reduces inequalities, and starts to address the big issues.”
While a dental school is seen as important, it was warned it could take 'a number of years to come to fruition' and would then take several years for dentists to come through.
There are also plans to help keep existing dentists in the area with attractive upskilling and specialism opportunities, while a regional ‘virtual academy’ is in the pipeline to develop staff.
It could mean in future that routine check-ups could be carried out by upskilled dental nurses so dentists are able to prioritise treatment work.
A recent report by Health Education England called Advancing Dental Care has highlighted rural and coastal areas as a priority, according to Tom Norfolk, who said he hoped it would generate change in Suffolk by prioritising placements for students over cities.
Commissioning powers for NHS dentistry is due to move across from NHS England to local Integrated Care Systems in the next 18 months, with a ‘shadow commissioning’ period due to start soon where local health leaders will have an influence before the changeover.
It comes as national lobbying continues for an overhaul of the NHS contracts that will make them more attractive for surgeries to bid for.
Meanwhile, earlier this week NHS England announced a £50m pot to deliver another 350,000 NHS dental appointments nationwide in February and March to tackle the access to treatment crisis.
Suffolk’s health scrutiny committee on Wednesday morning heard that NHS England commissioners met with practice leaders on Tuesday night, and the funding arrangements would be in place by February 1.
The scheme will entail additional appointments in the evenings and on weekends over those eight weeks to the end of March.
David Barter, head of commissioning for NHS England said the meeting held on Tuesday night with local dental committees called for expressions of interest.
“They are very supportive of this initiative,” he said.
“It really is determined by practices’ availability to mobilise their staff, recognising that that will be for out of hour periods, so evening and weekend periods.
“We are currently awaiting an expression of interest back from each one of the providers within the region to let us know what proportion of activity they can provide as part of this initiative.
“The idea then is that we then amend the contract payment mechanism so that any practice that wants to do this activity can do so from the 1st of February onwards.
“There is the eight critical weeks between the beginning of February and end of March where practices will be able to deliver this activity, and we hope that many practices will decide to dig deeper with their clinical teams and be able to offer that activity.”
It is understood that practices could be paid more than a third on top of the usual session fees to undertake the work that aims to make inroads on the backlog of patients, likely to prioritise those with the most urgent needs.
But health bosses said that while the funding level for practices makes it an attractive proposition, it may only be larger surgeries with more staff that have the flexibility to offer those bookings.
Gregory Brown, senior performance improvement manager at Suffolk and north east Essex clinical commissioning groups, said: “The workforce in the NHS generally is quite tired, and I do include dental practitioners in that.
“It does rely on dental practitioners being willing to take on that overtime.
“It is an attractive payment rate, so that does work in its favour which is very attractive for people to pick up this overtime.
“I do think some of the bigger practices will find it easier to mobilise. Some of the smaller practices that perhaps only have one or two dentists may struggle.”