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NHS dentist numbers drop by nearly 10% in a year

The number of dentists in our area has dropped by almost 10% in the past year, according to new figures.

New data which analysed dental figures for Clinical Commissioning Group areas across the country found that, in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough the number of NHS dentists dropped from 445 in 2020 to 405 in 2021.

In 2017 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough had 440 dentists, rising to 457 a year later before numbers started to drop; however our area shows by no means the highest decline.

Data from England and Wales shows more than 2,500 dental posts were lost across both countries in the last year alone – made up of 951 dentists, some of whom worked in multiple areas. 

And at least one town in England - Barnsley - has been unable to attract a single applicant for vacant NHS dentist posts for two years.

In all, 30 CCGs have lost at least 10% of their NHS dentists over the same time period.

Three months ago Peterborough Matters reported that one person had tried 43 dentists to get treatment, with others complaining that they had had to go private, or travel many miles.

Healthwatch said at the time: "Finding an NHS dentist across our area is the top issue people contact us about – and it remains one of our priorities. 

“A shortage of NHS dentists and dental nurses in the region and significant problems with recruitment were highlighted more than two years ago in our Finding an NHS Dentist report. 

“The Covid-19 shutdown of dentists has made existing problems worse for local people who need to access high street NHS dentist services and cannot pay for private treatment. 

“Although dentists have reopened, risk assessment and infection control regulations mean that they can see fewer patients each day. 

“Because of this, priority has gone to people needing urgent care. Some NHS dentists may be offering routine check-ups and treatments but it is limited. 

“We know that parents are struggling to get treatment for the children too. 

“We are meeting every two weeks to share people’s concerns and frustrations with NHS England and NHS Improvement, which plans and pays for dental services in our area. 

“We are also working with the local General Dental Council, to improve dental care provision but unfortunately there is no quick or simple fix.” 

An NHS spokesperson in the East of England, said“We are committed to ensuring everyone can access high quality dental care, and are working closely with dental providers to improve access to services, including inviting NHS contract holders to take on additional activity. Urgent and emergency dental care is available for those who need it, and people should continue to use the NHS 111 service for advice on where to go.”

Unions have warned NHS dentistry is "hanging by a thread" with some patients facing two-year waits for routine check ups.

The British Dental Association (BDA) said unhappiness with the NHS dental contract was a key factor.

NHS England said patients who needed care the most should be prioritised, and said it had set up 600 urgent dental centres across England.

The number of NHS dentists working in two English clinical commissioning group areas (CCGs) fell by more than a quarter in the year ending March 31, 2021, with the combined equivalent of 2,435 dentists leaving the health service.

The worst-affected was NHS Portsmouth CCG, which lost 26% of its NHS dentists over 12 months.

Meanwhile, 28 other English CCGs have lost at least 10% of their NHS dentists. 

The BDA’s Shawn Charlwood warned significant numbers of dentists were planning on leaving the NHS.

“NHS dentistry is hanging by a thread, because without NHS dentists, there will be no NHS dentistry,” said Mr Charlwood.

“It’s a really serious situation and every dentist that is lost or every vacancy for NHS dentistry that remains unfilled affects thousands of patients in terms of care and their ability to access care.”

"Every practice struggling to fill vacancies translates into thousands of patients unable to access care,” 

"Years of failed contracts and underfunding have meant a growing number of dentists no longer see the NHS as a place to build a career. The pandemic has upped the ante, and we are now facing down an exodus.

"Ministers have failed to grasp that we can't have NHS dentistry without NHS dentists. 

“Rather than punishing colleagues, we need a service that recognises and rewards commitment.”

Concern has also been raised about the usefulness of NHS England’s ‘Find a Dentist’ tool, which was created to help patients find an NHS dentist in their area. 

BBC analysis shows around 75% of practices in England had not updated the site to show whether they were accepting NHS patients or not within the last three months.

Interim director of Healthwatch Chris McCann said getting up to date information as to where people can access service is a “real issue”.

“Information on practices on the NHS website can be out-dated,” he added. “We've seen some people having to contact up to 20 practices before finding someone to take them.”

Until last year, NHS dentists in England and Wales had been using the units of dental activity (UDA) system.

UDAs are used to measure a practice’s activity. Courses of treatment - for example, a check up or a filling, are banded into UDAs.

Practices are set targets of UDAs to achieve, and if that target is missed, the contract holder and the practice can be forced to pay back money - known as ‘claw back’.

Critics have claimed the UDA system does not incentivise preventative work, and is a key reason for dentists leaving the health service.

Wales moved away from the UDA system in 2020, but the system is still in place in England. 

The BDA has predicted the number of NHS dentists in Wales will increase in the coming years and has called on England to reform the dental contract.

The number of NHS and HSCNI dentists in Scotland and Northern Ireland has remained steady over the last three years.