'Disaster' as lack of NHS dentists leaves Suffolk patients in pain
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Patients are being left in "severe pain" because of a lack of NHS dentists in Suffolk - with one ending up in hospital for three days after being unable to find emergency dental care.
Of 2,000 people surveyed by Healthwatch England, 27% said they either struggle to pay or avoid dental treatments altogether - because they cannot afford the costs.
Many areas have also been left without NHS dentist provision - such as Leiston, which lost two practices in 18 months and is now without its own NHS dentist.
In total, 30% of people in the survey reported feeling pressured into paying private fees for dental treatment.
Almost a quarter - 23% - said they will only visit the dentist when they need treatment, despite guidance recommending people need regular dental check-ups.
One patient told Healthwatch Suffolk: “I have been trying to get a dentist for three years, last week I ended up in hospital for three days because I had severe pain and could not find a dentist for emergencies or otherwise to fix my teeth.
“I ended up taking too many paracetamol and had to go to A&E on the advice of NHS 111.
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“I ended up on a drip for 36 hours and have finally come home.
“I still do not have a dentist and I am still in pain.”
Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, said: "This latest review by Healthwatch England strongly supports our own local view that there is huge inequality in the availability of NHS dental care amongst our population.
"We are living through a dental disaster, with little to no clear sign of when these problems will ease.
"This includes that some people have waited unreasonable lengths of time to get an NHS dentist appointment, while being told private appointments were available within a week."
Mr Yacoub said Healthwatch Suffolk was sharing its views with NHS England and NHS Improvement - East of England.
However, it is still being "inundated by feedback on a daily basis from those struggling to access these services".
"One individual revealed to us that they required urgent hospital treatment after overdosing on painkillers to combat their symptoms," Mr Yacoub said.
"Another told us they couldn't find a dentist to treat a tooth which had reached a point where it was decaying.
“Such stories are no longer a rarity, and we are concerned about the long-term impact on communities that we know are the most likely to be excluded from treatment and support.
"Sadly, none of these warning signs are new.
"Over the past year, we’ve seen a number of dentists in our county shut down or transition into full private practice, leaving thousands of people with no access to local dental care.
"This is a problem that impacts everyone and has grown to become one of our greatest concerns."
He added that data showed the groups most likely to be affected are those in low incomes and people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities.
Rebecca Bantick is a single mum-of-three in Leiston who doesn't drive, because of medical issues.
"I have to be NHS because I am a single mum and I'm on Universal Credit," said Miss Bantick.
Following the practice closures in Leiston, the next dentist that will take her on is in Colchester, 45 miles away - for which she would need to take a bus and two train trips.
The journey is just too expensive for her with three children, despite the fact Miss Bantick has needed treatment for a year.
"I have problems with an abscess," said Miss Bantick.
"I was given antibiotics over the phone."
Miss Bantick has still not been able to see a dentist.
After having an appointment cancelled in December 2019, Carol Newton was also left struggling to find a new dentist after her Leiston practice shut.
Mrs Newton said she would "dread to think" how many local dental practices she has called since then looking for a new dentist.
"They are not taking on NHS patients," said Mrs Newton.
She added that a lack of infrastructure was not helping the situation.
"They keep building houses and bringing people into the town but we don't have a dentist," said Mrs Newton.
Dr Dan Poulter, MP for Central Suffolk and north Ipswich - who himself has been delisted from an NHS dentist - said he was "very concerned".
"I am looking to have a debate about provision in Suffolk," he added.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We are committed to supporting the dental sector throughout this unprecedented pandemic so everyone across the country can access affordable, high-quality dental care.
“All dental practices have been able to deliver their full range of face-to-face care since last June, with over 600 practices providing additional support for urgent dental treatment.
“We continue to support the most vulnerable by providing exemptions from dental charges for certain groups – nearly half of all dental treatments, over 17million, were provided free of charge in 2019-20.”
People who are in pain should call NHS 111 to access an Urgent Dental Centre.