Dire plight of NHS dentists for patients

WITH just one day to go before a controversial new contract is introduced for NHS dentists, the Evening Star can today reveal that more than a third of practices in the county have chosen to go private.

WITH just one day to go before a controversial new contract is introduced for NHS dentists, the Evening Star can today reveal that more than a third of practices in the county have chosen to go private.

Latest figures show that, so far, only 58 of the county's 90 dental practices have accepted the new NHS contract.

This means thousands of patients could face huge round trips for treatment or be left without dental care, unless they choose to sign up to the private care plans their practices are offering instead.

Negotiations are still on-going between Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and dental practices but the new contract will be rolled out from the beginning of April.

In the area covered by the Suffolk East PCTs there are 56 NHS dental practices.

So far, only 33 have signed the new contract and will continue to provide NHS care to patients of all ages.

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A further eight will continue to provide NHS services for children and one is withdrawing totally from NHS services. The remaining 14 have yet to decide.

Caroline Tuohy, director of commissioning and development, said the PCT was working hard to address the problem.

She said: “The gap in provision is not as big as in some areas. We have been very lucky locally but we recognise that there are anxieties out there and we will let people know about alternative arrangements as soon as possible.”

In the Suffolk West PCT's area there are 34 practices. 25 have accepted an NHS contract, three have completely withdrawn from the NHS and six have will only treat children on the NHS. Three have yet to decide.

The PCT estimate that more than 50 per cent of those patients whose practices are opting out of the NHS would opt to stay with them in a private capacity. However, they will work closely with dental practices to find out how many patients have been affected.

Jenny Brabazon, a member of the Suffolk Coastal PCTs patient and public involvement forum, said: “I think the whole thing has been handled very badly. It's not unreasonable for people to be able to choose a new option before the old one has expired but there's still so much uncertainty.

“It's upsetting that the whole thing is in this state.”

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The Department of Health say the new contract will benefit patients as it simplifies the payment system. Under the old contract there were different price tags for every different treatment, under the new one there will only be three different price bands.

Patient groups say that this could mean people end up paying much higher prices for their treatment.

Dentists used to be paid for each patient they treated. Under the new contract they will be given a lump sum based on a predicted number of “units” of work each month.

Many dentists are still in the process of negotiating this sum with PCTs as they have concerns about the way it has been worked out.

Lester Ellman, of the British Dental Association, said: “We don't believe the new contract will improve patient care or access to NHS dentistry, and we also believe it's been introduced in a shambolic way.

“Dentists are telling us they can't plan for the future because their local PCTs can't tell them how much funding is going to be available. The situation is crazy, and puts the profession in an impossible position, increasing the confusion and uncertainty over the future of NHS dentistry.”

Senior dentists warned today that a radical overhaul of the service will make NHS dental care even harder to find.

Ministers claimed the reforms, set to take effect from April 1, will increase the availability of NHS dentistry.

But a survey for ITV1's Tonight With Trevor McDonald showed that dentists across the country believe the changes will have the opposite effect.

The new system is designed to be simpler and fairer but has been met with anger from dentists who claim it leaves little time for preventative work and is confusing.

Instead of being paid for each NHS treatment they carry out, dentists will be given a guaranteed income, estimated to be about £80,000 a year for three years.

Dental charges will also be simplified into three pay bands to replace the current 400 separate payments.

The survey of 23 local dental committee chairmen in England found almost all (96 per cent) believe they are likely to see fewer NHS patients because of the reforms.

A questionnaire was sent to the British Dental Associations General Dental Practice Committees. Out of 45 committee chairmen, 23 replied.

It also found that all 23 respondents believed the new system will aggravate problems of accessing care.

Furthermore, fewer than one in 20 (four per cent) said it will improve NHS dental care, while all of the respondents said fewer dentists will be working for the NHS in 10 years.

Dr Nick Patsias, chairman of the London Dental Committee, has said there will be "very few people" left in NHS dentistry in a decade.

He said: "The new vocational trainees that are coming in, they want to go into private dentistry almost immediately because they don't see a future in NHS dentistry any more. And they are the future of the profession.''

Dr John Renshaw, a former head of the British Dental Association, said he will quit the NHS after 37 years because of the new changes.

Health Minister Rosie Winterton said dentists with a "high level'' of commitment to the NHS can expect to earn about £80,000 a year, plus practice expenses.

She said: "That's guaranteed for three years for 5% less work. Now, all the evidence is that the vast majority of dentists are signing up to the new contract.

"Overall, I believe very strongly that the changes we're bringing in will improve access to NHS dental care. Access to NHS dentistry will increase.''

Earlier this week, a survey by The Patients Association uncovered similar findings.

It polled 212 dentists in the North of England, 327 in the South and 145 in the Midlands.

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