Finding an available NHS dentist in Suffolk a postcode lottery
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People in Suffolk seeking dental work face lengthy waits or may be forced to go private as a survey reveals less than half of practices are taking NHS patients.
The East Anglian Daily Times Investigations Unit surveyed more than 70 surgeries across the county and found certain towns with no availability for NHS patients, while others had four-month waiting lists to register.
Using the NHS Choices website, followed up with more than 30 phone calls, we found that 33 of the practices surveyed in towns including Ipswich, Felixstowe and Bury St Edmunds were taking new non-fee paying patients, compared with 43 that were not.
One receptionist answering our call at a practice in east Suffolk said: “We have so many people asking but we just don’t have the funding.”
While nearly all the practices in some towns, such as Sudbury, had availability for new non-private patients, others fared far worse.
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In Stowmarket, none of the town’s five practices were able to register a new NHS patient, while only three of Bury’s ten practices could – one of which warned of a four-month wait.
In Ipswich 13 would take on new NHS patients compared with 15 that would not.
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At least two of the practices in the town had closed for several weeks in August for refurbishments.
Recent arrivals have spoken of their frustration at finding a suitable dentist.
Jacqui Clarke, a mother of two, said she moved to Ipswich from west London three years ago but had been unable to find a suitable practice to take her on its books since.
“If I got a problem I’d seriously consider going back down to London because I’m still on their books,” she added.
Zoë Baker, also from Ipswich, said that her mother booked an appointment with a dentist in the town on Friday and was told she could not be seen until November.
Those prepared to pay extra for private treatment, however, face fewer obstacles in registering, with most practices – though not all – taking on new customers, with reduced waiting times. NHS patients in north Essex also appeared to face an easier time registering, with 11 of the 14 practices surveyed in Colchester saying they would take on new NHS patients, as did four of the five in Clacton and six of seven in Braintree.
Campaigners at Healthwatch Suffolk are seeking information from patients in the county to identify whether access to dentists is a problem in Suffolk.
Dr Tony Rollo, chairman of Healthwatch Suffolk, said: “We believe strongly that people should be able to access the treatment and services they need, irrespective of where they live or who they are and have a clear sense of what they are entitled to.
“We know that access to dentistry is not just an issue local to Suffolk. Indeed, research conducted by Healthwatch England last year involving Local Healthwatch across the country found that in some areas just one in five surgeries were accepting new NHS patients. There were reports of patients being de-registered without notice and emerging concerns of dentists providing poorer-quality services on the NHS and insisting on private treatments.”
Today, dentists have responded to the criticisms, claiming that a lack of Government investment in dental budgets meant the risk of taking on new NHS patients acted as a disincentive.
Paul Rolfe, secretary of the Suffolk Local Dental Committee, said the problem had been going on for some time.
He said the introduction of new dental contracts under Labour in 2006 had improved the situation as it enabled new practices to open in areas of identified need. However, those assessments had been lost over recent years.
“The investment has stopped and money is being clawed back from the dental budget to fill the holes in the NHS spending,” he added.
“Under the current NHS contract, the risk of taking on a new NHS patient is that they may well be in need of a fair amount of work, which attracts the same number of credits towards our NHS contract target as a single item of treatment on a regular patient.
“As such there is a disincentive to take on a new patient on the NHS, because you have no idea what you might be letting yourself in for.”
Under the current system, which has been in place since 2006, NHS England commissions a fixed number of appointments to surgeries for that year. Dentists say they have more patients than available appointments and if they were to meet the demand and go over the cap, it would cost them money.
A spokesman from the British Dental Association (BDA) added: “Most of the problems arise out of the perverse nature of a target-driven system that is not based on patients’ needs, but on the budgets determined by the Government.”
Commenting on our findings, a spokesman for NHS England (East), said: “Dental patients are not registered with an NHS dentist in the same way that they are with a GP practice. NHS dental patients are free to seek treatment from any dentist accepting NHS patients who have capacity to see them. This system now provides more options for patients seeking NHS treatment, meaning they are not now just restricted to receiving treatment from one dentist in their area. The rural nature of parts of East Anglia may affect people’s ability to access dental services. Some patients do choose to access non-NHS services for a variety of reasons.
“However, across East Anglia access to dental services is generally good although uptake is not always high. In addition not everyone wishes to visit a dentist on a regular basis and some may only require care when they have a problem.
“Most patients in East Anglia report that they are able to find an NHS dentist when they want one and the vast majority are satisfied with the service they receive.
“NHS England would welcome the opportunity to review the survey undertaken to understand the specific areas of concern relating to accessing NHS services in the local area.”
Suffolk Healthwatch has urged patients to provide feedback on its website to help it monitor local issues.
The official Government website offering advice on available dental practices did not always provide accurate information, our survey found.
Out of the 34 practices we called, more than a third gave different responses on whether they were registering new patients compared to the NHS Choices website.
The most regular error was reporting that a dental practice was taking new NHS patients when in fact it was not. Occasionally it reported that a dentist was not taking new patients, when it was.
The website gave no indication of the waiting times of those practices that were listed as taking on new patients, which were often several months.
A recent Which? consumer survey found that four in ten people would use NHS Choices to
find dental services in their
It also found that, of 500 surgeries advertised as accepting new patients on the site, 37% subsequently said they did not have availability.
A spokesman for the Health and Social Care Information Centre said: “NHS Choices provides every NHS dentist with the opportunity to tell local people about their services, including an indication of whether they are currently accepting NHS patients for new courses of treatment.
“Whenever we hear from the public that information is not up to date for a particular practice, we contact the practice. This is our opportunity to help and encourage them to provide accurate information.”