90% of dental practices in the UK are not accepting new adult patients, BBC investigation confirms

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Wednesday 10th October 2022

A BBC investigation has revealed that 90% of UK dental practices are not taking on new adult NHS patients. 

The BBC contacted nearly 7,000 dental practices across the UK. They found that 9 out of 10 had no available places for new NHS adult patients and 80% were not accepting new child NHS patients. In some areas, including the South West and North West of England and Yorkshire and the Humber, 98% of practices were turning away NHS adult patients. 

During the investigation, researchers discovered that up and down the country, patients who don’t have a practice are struggling to get an appointment. Even those that have an NHS dentist are experiencing difficulties, including waiting several months to see a dentist and being unable to access routine care. 

Of the thousands of practices contacted by the BBC, the majority did not have a waiting list. Those that did often said that waiting times were over a year. Many said it was impossible to tell patients how long their wait would be. One practice in Cornwall, which is one of the worst-affected counties, had a waiting time of up to five years. 

Caroline Young, from Blackpool, is one of many patients who shared her experiences with researchers. Caroline had crowns placed by her NHS dentist years ago, but in 2018, the practice stopped treating NHS patients. She has been unable to find an alternative provider since, despite calling all the surgeries in her local area repeatedly over the last four years. She has called all the local practices and even contacted clinics as far away as Preston, but none of them are even offering the option to join a waiting list. Her crowns have since fallen out and she is resorting to temporary plastic caps she ordered online after seeing them on social media.

Caroline has become so desperate that she said she often cries when she can’t fit the plastic crowns properly. She said that the situation is “demoralising” and her dental health sets her back. 
Patients interviewed by the BBC also revealed tales of DIY dentistry, round-trips of hundreds of miles to see a dentist and borrowing money for private dental care even though patients knew they couldn’t afford to take out a loan. 

Access figures were better in Scotland than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In London, the news was also much more positive than in other parts of England. Up to 25% of practices had places for new adult NHS patients in London. In Scotland, 18% of practices were offering new patient spaces in comparison with 7%-10% in Wales, Northern Ireland and England. 

BBC News researchers were unable to find a single dental practice that was taking on new NHS patients in some parts of the country, including Devon, Leeds, Norfolk and Lancashire. 

The British Dental Association (BDA) reacted to the survey, claiming that NHS dentistry had reached a “tipping point.” The union has warned of a deepening crisis for several years and accused successive governments of failing to provide sufficient funding for NHS dental services. 
In some areas, there were shortages of dental places before the pandemic, but the Covid-19 outbreak has undoubtedly exacerbated the situation. BDA research estimates that over 40 million dental appointments were lost during the pandemic and around 3,000 dentists have left the NHS or reduced their NHS work. There are significant treatment backlogs and the demand for treatment is increasing. People who haven’t been to a dentist since before the pandemic are coming forward for treatment and patients also need more complex treatment, which is increasing pressure on dentists. 
There is also a lack of routine appointments, which spells trouble for the future. Routine check-ups enable dentists to identify early warning signs, which reduces the risk of more complex issues. If patients can’t access regular appointments, the risks increase. 

The government suggested that it had made extra funding worth £50 million to fund 350,000 dental appointments to reduce backlogs and NHS England recently confirmed changes to the heavily-criticised NHS dental contract. However, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better, as studies suggest that more dentists are thinking about leaving the NHS to go private or quitting the profession altogether. 

One of the main problems for patients is the cost of private dental care. Many private practices have appointments available, often within a week or a month. NHS dental care is not free of charge, but it is heavily subsidised. Private fees are usually significantly more expensive. The cost of a crown on the NHS, for example, is just over £280. The cost of a new crown at a private practice can range from £400 to over £1,000.