Healthwatch Dorset recently investigated why people are struggling to get dental care in the county, finding only three of Dorset’s 99 NHS registered dental practices who were taking on new adult patients and only 13 who were accepting children as new patients.

Access to NHS dentistry has been one of the most significant issues raised with Healthwatch across England over the last 18 months since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over half of the enquiries dealt with by Healthwatch Dorset this year have been about NHS dentistry. People have reported that they are unable to find a dentist to get routine or urgent dental care, with many experiencing significant and worsening pain due to delays in treatment. Over the last six months Healthwatch Dorset has seen an increase in enquiries from people trying to get dental care for their children.

From September to November 2021, a team of Healthwatch Dorset volunteers contacted all 99 of Dorset’s NHS registered dental practices to investigate the situation. 74 dental practices responded, six did not respond because they were no longer treating NHS patients, and 19 did not respond, despite being called three or more times, and being sent a letter about the research.

The findings are published in a new Healthwatch Dorset report, Accessing dental care in Dorset, which clearly demonstrates why the public are raising concerns.

  • Only three of the 74 dental practices who responded were taking on new NHS adult patients, though six said they were taking on new NHS patients who were pregnant.
  • Only four practices said they were taking on new NHS patients who were being treated for cancer. Another five said they would see people receiving cancer treatment, but only if they were referred and/or had additional needs, for example, a disability or diagnosed mental health condition, under the discretion of the dentist.
  • Only 13 practices were taking on children as new NHS patients, and two of those only in emergencies. A further seven said they would see children, but only if their parents were registered as private patients.
  • Only 18 (25%) of the dental practices that responded had a waiting list for NHS patients; 48 (65%) did not. Waiting times varied and some practices did not know when they would open their waiting list.
  • 66 (49%) of dental practices reached were seeing existing patients for routine appointments.

In response, Healthwatch Dorset is calling on those responsible for dental care to improve the situation in the following ways:

  • More urgent dental care should be made available.
  • All NHS dentists should be advised to make places available for children without restrictions.
  • All NHS dentists should be advised and funded to provide places for people who are pregnant and/or undergoing cancer treatment.
  • Clearer public information and better communication is needed to help people understand why NHS dental care is limited and how they can find care when they need it.
  • The charity Dentaid should continue to be funded to provide local dental care for people experiencing homelessness.
  • The Government and NHS England should build on the recent one-off funding of £50 million for 350,000 extra NHS dental appointments by March 2022, by speeding up dental contract reform and providing significant and sustained funding to tackle the underlying problems of dental access and affordability (Healthwatch England report: Recovery of NHS dental care too slow to help thousands left in pain | Dec 2021).

Healthwatch Dorset has shared its findings and recommendations with Dorset NHS commissioners, Dorset Local Dental Committee, dental care providers, local Councils, the South West Dental Commissioning Team, and NHS England, to highlight people’s concerns.

Announcing the report, Louise Bate, Healthwatch Dorset Manager, said: “This snapshot research gives a clear picture of the situation with access to NHS dental care in Dorset at the end of 2021. It reflects common issues that continue to be raised with us by the public and with other local Healthwatch across England.

“Since we carried out this research, NHS England has announced £50 million of funding to secure up to 350,000 additional NHS dental appointments by the end of March 2022. We welcome this funding and we are pleased that children, people with learning disabilities, autism, or severe mental health problems will be prioritised for treatment. However, ongoing reform is required, and we look forward to working with NHS England to help them improve access to NHS dentistry for local people.”

Share your views and experiences of dental care or any local health and social care service, online healthwatchdorset.co.uk/talk-to-us, by phone 0300 111 0102 or email: enquiries@healthwatchdorset.co.uk.