Nearly 30% drop in Suffolk dentists taking NHS work

Bury St Edmunds protest march in October, 2021

Bury St Edmunds protest march in October, 2021 - Credit: Sas Astro

NHS dentistry "could soon become extinct," campaigners have warned, as data reveals an "exodus" of dentists from the service - including at least 27% in Suffolk since 2020.

Department of Health data analysed by the BBC shows almost 1,000 dentists working in 2,500 roles across England and Wales stopped carrying out NHS work over the last year.

The joint-third worst affected area in England is West Suffolk Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), which saw a fall of 21% of dentists completing NHS work between 2020 and 2021. Ipswich and East Suffolk CCG saw a drop of 6% over the same period.

This equates to an almost 30% loss of dentists (47) taking on NHS work over the last year in these Suffolk CCG areas - compared to an East of England percentage change of -7%.

The Toothless in Suffolk campaign has gone national

The Toothless in Suffolk campaign has gone national - Credit: Toothless in England

Norfolk and Waveney CCG, which includes the Waveney area of Suffolk, saw 7% less dentists completing NHS work over the last year.

Toothless in England, a campaign group that started in Suffolk, is calling on the government to declare a public health emergency and implement a disaster recovery plan, warning that unless they do so immediately NHS dentistry "could soon become extinct".

Mark Jones, spokesperson for Toothless in England, said: “This plan must immediately address the mass exodus of NHS qualified dentists.

"An emergency contract must be quickly drawn up, backed by appropriate levels of funding, that incentivises patient care over targets, such that it will enable dental surgeries across the country to slow down the decline.

"It must also look to ensure that hundreds, if not thousands of overseas qualified dentists who have been living here for years waiting to be put through the NHS competency exams, are now fast-tracked so they can fill the vacancies.

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"After that, the government and the Treasury must work together with the profession, unions, dental schools, and patient groups to create an NHS dental contract that is fit for purpose, one which above all meets the needs of the patient.”

Mark Jones (left), spokesman for the Toothless in England campaign group, with mascot Flossy and Edd

Mark Jones (left), spokesman for Toothless in England campaign group, with mascot Flossy and Eddie Crouch (chairman of the British Dental Association) - Credit: Mark Jones

The British Dental Association (BDA) trade union said "NHS dentistry is hanging by a thread".

Its own survey from December revealed more than 40% of dentists indicate they are now likely to change career or seek early retirement in the next 12 months given the current pressures on the service.

The dental crisis predates the coronavirus pandemic, but Covid is said to have exacerbated problems.

Shawn Charlwood, chair of the BDA's general dental practice committee, said: "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."

Dentaid, a charity that normally operates in the Third World, came to Bury St Edmunds

Dentaid, a charity that normally operates in the Third World, came to Bury St Edmunds in November to run free emergency dental clinics. Pictured is Jill Harding, communications director for Dentaid - Credit: Mariam Ghaemi

The data shows that for West Suffolk CCG, there has been a -10% change in dentists completing NHS work over the last five years.

The Dentaid charity, often associated with providing treatment in third world countries, came to Bury St Edmunds in November to relieve people of toothache "misery" and will be back in the town on February 3.

On February 2 the charity will be visiting Leiston, which has been without any NHS dental provision since losing both of its practices in 18 months.

‘Toothless’ Facebook groups up and down the country are full of posts from patients sharing their stories, including people taking matters into their own hands by drinking a bottle of whisky before they pull out their own teeth.

Mr Jones said: "It’s really upsetting to hear. These stories are what you'd expect to read in a Dickensian novel, not now in 2022.

"The public's oral, general, and mental health suffers while the government continues to neglect and underfund the service."

The government's response

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have taken unprecedented action to support the dental sector throughout the pandemic, and urgent care is back to pre-pandemic levels thanks to the hard work of staff.

“Work is underway on dental contract reform. We are working with partners, including the British Dental Association, to look at alternative ways of commissioning services and making the NHS a more attractive place to work for dentists.

“We are also providing full income protection for practices unable to deliver their usual level of activity.”

The NHS' response

An NHS spokesperson said the NHS had provided additional funding for practices unable to deliver their usual levels of activity during the pandemic, alongside setting up 600 urgent dental centres across England.

"People should continue to come forward for the dental care they need, and the care and treatment of people who need it most should be prioritised," they added.

Toothless in England, which is calling for an NHS dentist for everyone, is planning a national day of action later in the year which will see patients protesting and lobbying constituency MPs and government ministers.