A nine-step plan to improve dental care in Suffolk, including flexible contracts to allow nurses and hygienists to treat patients where possible, has been given the go-ahead. 

Suffolk and North East Essex Integrated Care Board (SNEE ICB) met on Tuesday, March 26, where Peter Wightman, ICB west Suffolk alliance director, and Nick Barber, local dental network chair, sought endorsement of the Improving Oral Health in SNEE: ICB Dental Plan.

The plan also aims to provide a focus on prevention and access for priority groups.

Introducing the plan, Mr Wightman: "This is a really important day for us as the integrated care board.

"We picked up responsibility for oral health commissioning last April and this plan represents the culmination of lots of work that we've done with partners." 

Nick Barker, soon-to-be co-regional chief dental officer, said: "We have a situation that is broadening as to health inequalities related to oral health. In part that is related to the way NHS services have historically been contracted."

The report before the board members stated that in 2022/23 in Ipswich and east Suffolk only 79% of contracted 'units of dental activity' were delivered, and in West Suffolk, the number was just 63%. 

In October 2023, the most recent data, just 42.3% of SNEE population had access to NHS dentist.

The plan identified 'contractual opportunities' including new flexibilities where up to 20% of contract value can be paid in agreed ways, not just based on 'Units of Dental Activity' as it had been previously. 

The report also suggested new flexibilities to recognise the role wider professional groups, such as nurses, therapists and hygienists, can play in the delivery of care. 

The overall plan comprises of nine approaches, including 'prevention', where work with children and in care homes will be undertaken, and 'workforce', where work with the universities in Essex and Suffolk will help train hygienists and therapists. 

Those with learning disabilities, children in care and people with dementia, as well as other priority groups, would also be a focus as the report stated the ICB would use flexible commissioning powers to offer local dental providers a contract supplement to treat them. 

The board heard this scheme has been offered around the ICB area, with 20 practices taking it up. 

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Mr Wightman said the aim would be that 'units of dental activity' would increase by 28% by 2026/27. 

Andy Yacoub, chief executive officer and executive director at Healthwatch Suffolk, said: "We recognise that Suffolk and North East Essex ICB has approached the challenge innovatively and proactively. The ICB is using its resources as wisely as it can and involving its key stakeholders, including both Healthwatches." 

The nine-point programme was endorsed and it was agreed that regular updates would be given to the board.