OPINION: New dentists should work in NHS after training

EMBARGOED TO 0001 FRIDAY DECEMBER 17 File photo dated 19/05/11 of a general view of a dentist at wor

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt looked at the widescale problems of accessing dental services. - Credit: PA

This week I wanted to focus on an issue which is affecting many of my constituents: access to NHS dentist appointments.

There simply is not sufficient capacity when it comes to NHS dentist appointments. I wanted to look at possible solutions, and how I think the Department for Health and Social Care should approach this national problem.

Access to dentistry is a nationwide issue right now. I am acutely aware of how severely it is affecting my constituents in Ipswich. I have had letters, emails, phone calls and conversations on the doorstep about how difficult it is to get an NHS dentist appointment. Constituents have contacted me about emergency dental issues, unable to find a dentist for themselves and for their children.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt said knife incidents "occur too often" after a man was stabbed on June 2 - Credit: House of Commons

One constituent got in touch to tell me about her experiences, after 40 years of service in the NHS as a midwife in Ipswich, of not being able to find any NHS dentists.

She is not alone in Ipswich. Some people have contacted as many as 40 dental practices with no luck. Nobody should have to bear the burden of expensive private appointments they can't afford.

I have lobbied ministers and had emergency meetings with Ed Garrett, Chief Executive of Suffolk and North East Essex NHS, regarding the current situation, as well as written letters to the Secretary of State.

It is an issue which I have raised in the Chamber, and one which comes up time and time again in casework. Lack of access to dentist appointments is a real problem for healthcare outcomes – which can exacerbate health inequalities in areas which are already deprived.

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Tooth decay is the top cause of hospital admission in five to nine-year-olds. The impact on health outcomes can be significant. Those with no ability to pay for private dental care or not covered by dental insurance are most at risk, and of course this affects people from less affluent backgrounds more severely.

The UK is one of the best developed nations and the NHS has a vital role in providing healthcare which is free at point of access – one of the things we as a nation are rightly proud of. But why is it failing so badly when it comes to dentistry?

The problem right now is that there is not enough capacity in the system. My constituents are being told by every NHS dentist in the vicinity that no new patients are being taken. This is clearly a broken system, especially when we consider the cost to the taxpayer of training dentists.

Currently the taxpayer pays vast sums – around £340,000 to train a dentist. However, these individuals are under no obligation to work for the NHS once they qualify. This means they can immediately move to private work or even abroad – and can continue to do so for the rest of their career.

So, how can we fix it? How can we build more capacity into the system, and ensure that the dentists we train here in the UK stay and work for the NHS where they are desperately needed?

Simply increasing the number of dentistry students will not compel those with the right qualifications to work for the NHS – we need to build a certain expectation into the job description of all dentists.

I personally think it would be a good idea for there to be an obligation for them to give at least something to the NHS once they’ve been trained up. Bearing in mind the taxpayer funding, newly qualified professionals should then have to spend approximately 50% of their working time on NHS clients, for about 5 to 10 years.

In the medium to long term perhaps only something like this will ensure that we get back to a time when the vast majority can get access to decent dental treatment on the NHS.

We also need to support the education sector to produce skilled professionals where they are most needed.

I was pleased to hear from Minister for Health Maria Caulfield that Ipswich will be considered in particular for a Centre of Dental Development.

This looks part of a more long term plan for increasing dentist provision and training up dentists where they are most needed. Training new dentists locally and ensuring they remain in the NHS providing much-needed appointments is vital to alleviating the pressure on the system.

Having a dental school for the East of England, potentially based at the University of Suffolk, would be a positive step in meeting the needs of the region. So, I am supporting the University of Suffolk in their endeavours to launch a Centre for Dental Development right here.

More broadly, the situation with dentistry in the UK clearly needs addressing. I have written to the Department for Health and Social care to recommend these changes, and I really hope the Secretary of State agrees with my suggestions. It seems evident to me that we need to alter the way dentistry graduates operate here, and make sure that first and foremost they are serving the NHS in this country.

We know just how important dental care is, especially in areas which have pockets of deprivation. I think this requirement to work in the NHS before being able to move off to fully private work or even work abroad is a way of increasing capacity in the system and hopefully ensuring better access to appointments. I know this is something which is important to many of my constituents right now, and I want to see action to improve access.