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West Norfolk dental patients down in the mouth says health watchdog

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Healthwatch Norfolk has warned that a lack of NHS dental appointments has widenened health inequalities.

The patients’ champion warns of widening health inequalities as people across the country struggle to pay for dental treatments.

A new survey of public attitudes to NHS dentistry shows.

Checking condition of teeth with a visit to the dentist.. (54790641)
Checking condition of teeth with a visit to the dentist.. (54790641)

More than half the adults in East Anglia find dental charges unfair amid escalating costs of living

Alex Stewart, chief executive of Healthwatch Norfolk, said: "We get more phone feedback about the difficulty of accessing dental care than anything else.

"People are finding it impossible to access the help they need at a price they can afford, with some having no alternative but to seek private care or just go without treatment.

Alex Stewart, chief executive of Healthwatch Norfolk. (54637448)
Alex Stewart, chief executive of Healthwatch Norfolk. (54637448)

"In Norfolk, the lack of dentists is particularly acute as those practices keen to increase their NHS lists cannot find the staff for this to happen.

"We are aware that some new NHS dental contracts have been awarded and, in the short term, we want to see more information on these to be made public as a matter of urgency so that people can access the care they need.

"There also needs to be an urgent look at NHS dental contracts so that this can be tackled before the new systems of health care begin nationally next year. It is simply unacceptable that people cannot access NHS dental care anywhere in Norfolk."

Healthwatch Norfolk is reporting dentists are not taking on new NHS patients anywhere in the county and says NHS dentistry is in a desperate need of reform ahead of new regional health bodies taking over control next year.

Healthwatch England warns that health inequalities are widening as people in every part of the country are struggling to pay for dental care.

In Norfolk, patients are finding it is impossible to get dental treatment particularly if they are new to the area or have not attended an appointment for a considerable time

A representative poll of 2,026 adults based in England found nearly half (49 per cent) of respondents felt NHS dental charges were unfair, with that number rising to 54 per cent in the East.

The poll, which looked at people’s experiences of NHS dentistry, including costs associated with dental care, found the following:

The shortage of NHS appointments has hit people on low incomes hardest, meaning they are less likely to have dental treatment, compared with those on higher incomes. The poll suggests that people from social economic group (SEG) A are six times more likely to be able to pay for private dental care if they cannot find an NHS dentist to treat them than people from SEG E (48 per cent and eight per cent, respectively).

The new data also reveals a significant North-South divide when it comes to affordability of dental care. While one in five people (20 per cent) living in the South said they can afford private dental care if they cannot find an NHS dentist, in the North, just seven per cent said they could afford private treatment.

Overall, 38 per cent of the respondents feel they are less likely to visit a dentist, despite clinical guidelines recommending regular dental check-ups to keep people’s mouths healthy.

The findings come as more than 2,000 dentists quit the NHS last year, according to new data obtained by the Association of Dental Groups under freedom of information laws, suggesting a growing trend towards private provision.

Healthwatch England has repeatedly raised concerns over the last two years as the twin crisis of access and affordability has continued to grow. Between October 2021 and March 2022, the Healthwatch network heard from 4,808 people about their experiences of dental care, many of whom were struggling to access timely care.

Healthwatch is therefore making renewed calls on NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care to put a reformed dental contract in place before formal responsibility for dental services passes to the 42 new Integrated Care Systems in April 2023.

Louise Ansari, national director at Healthwatch England said: "Access to NHS dentistry has been one of the most significant issues people have raised with us in the last two years.

"There is now a deepening crisis in dental care, leaving people struggling to get treatment or regular check-ups on the NHS.

"The shortage of NHS appointments is creating a two-tier dental system, which widens inequalities and damages the health of the most disadvantaged communities.

"With millions of households bearing the brunt of the escalating living costs, private treatment is simply not an option and even NHS charges can be a challenge.

"This needs urgent attention if the Government is to achieve its levelling up plan and tackle health disparities.

"We are once again calling on the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England for greater ambition and urgency from NHS dental reform plans to create a fair and inclusive dental service.

"We strongly recommend that a new dental contract is in place before Integrated Care Systems take on formal responsibility for dentistry from next April."

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