The largest NHS dental surgery in Ipswich has warned that state-funded service in the town is on the brink after two of its dentists went private.

Staffa Lodge in Norwich Road, which is run by the Smile Group, struggles to attract new NHS staff to the town - and now two of its nine dentists have decided to only do private or insurance work.

Practice manager Chris Read said the dentists' contract in 2006 had had a devastating effect on NHS work - and Ipswich had been hit harder than anywhere else in the country.

The problem was not helped by the number of NHS patients who failed to turn up for their appointments - a no-show meant the practice got no fee for the appointment.

Staffa Lodge employs 25 staff - nurses, administrators, receptionists - and engages nine dentists and seven specialist staff, bringing its total number up to just over 40.

However unlike other NHS services, dental surgeries are very much run as a business, claiming money from the NHS for treatment they do.

East Anglian Daily Times: A surgery at Staffa LodgeA surgery at Staffa Lodge (Image: Paul Geater)

Mrs Read said: "The money that people pay for their NHS work goes straight to the NHS, we don't keep that - they then pay us for each piece of work that is done."

However the fee received from the NHS takes no account of the work done - one filling taking about 20 minutes will get the same fee as a mouthful of fillings that could take two hours to complete.

And fees vary according to location. Mrs Read said Ipswich received lower fees than anywhere else in the country.

"Dentists can get higher fees in Colchester, Cambridge, even Felixstowe. And in London and Manchester they have the potential to earn three times what they can in Ipswich."

That made it very difficult to recruit NHS dentists in the town. "People think their dentist is very well off," said Mrs Read. "Well, I see their bank details and what they have to pay in insurance, other fees, and university loans. They are not left with a great deal!"

Patient no-shows were a big problem - last year more than 1,000 appointments were missed and over the last 52 days a further 171 people have not shown up.

When no-shows are challenged and after the two dentists said they would not be treating NHS patients after May there was a torrent of abuse from some people.

Mrs Read said: "My staff and I should not have to take that!"

For that reason she did not want to be photographed.

Patients of the two dentists who have gone private have been offered contracts with insurance provider Denplan with monthly fees based on their treatment over recent years.

East Anglian Daily Times: Staffa Lodge on Norwich Road.Staffa Lodge on Norwich Road. (Image: Paul Geater)

Staffa Lodge is one of 10 dental surgeries in the South East owned by the Watford-based Smile Group, which was founded by a number of NHS dentists.

Its chief executive Dr Jin Vaghela said: "Since its inception in 2006 the NHS dental contract has faced significant challenges.

"The financial model underpinning NHS dental services had been problematic for more than a decade, making it increasingly difficult for dentists to provide comprehensive care without facing financial losses.

"Staffa Lodge Smile Clinic, like many practices across the UK, has found it challenging to sustain the provision of NHS dental care under the current funding model.

"Despite our best efforts to manage these challenges, the reality is that the cost of delivering treatments often exceeds the funding received from the NHS, pushing us toward a model that might not be sustainable in the long term."

He said that many dentists faced financial and emotional strains.

Dr Vaghela said the Smile Group remained committed to providing NHS care - but reform would have to come.

He added: "Staffa Lodge remains dedicated to providing the highest quality dental care, and we urge the government to take decisive action to support the dental profession and ensure that NHS dentistry can meet the needs of the community now and in the future."