Toothache for four months, but where are the dentists?


Campaigners held a rally in Bury St Edmunds on Sunday about the lack of NHS dentists. - Credit: Archant

Patients who are in so much pain they cannot eat solid foods are waiting months to see a dentist or even performing their own dentistry.

More than half of people in Suffolk and north Essex have not seen a dentist in over a year amid a shortage which has been made worse by the pandemic.

Around 60% of adults surveyed in this year’s NHS dental survey said they had not seen a dentist for at least 12 months. The figure for Suffolk and north Essex is even worse for children, with two thirds not seeing a dentist in the last year. 

Dentists have blamed underfunding of NHS services which means towns like Leiston no longer have a dentist. 

One patient described how her carer broke a tooth and, unable to find a dentist, used a metal nail file to perform her own dentistry.

Andy Yacoub, chief executive of patient group Healthwatch Suffolk, said: “The dental system is in its worst crisis ever. 

“Before the pandemic we hardly ever heard about it, now about two-thirds of all our calls are about dentistry.”

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He put the problem down to the amount dentists are paid by NHS England, saying some operate at a loss when taking NHS patients. 

The findings come as part of our investigation into the state of the NHS as it heads into winter.

On Sunday a protest was held in Bury St Edmunds by campaign group Toothless in Suffolk. Organiser Steve Marsling, set up the group after his dentist in Leiston closed in April.

NHS Dentist protest in Bury St Edmunds. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Campaigners want better dental care in Suffolk - Credit: Brittany Woodman

“I tried to get in at another surgery and was told I was number 1,000 and something on the list," he said. "I’m 70 and I’ve paid my National Insurance for 45 years, the whole idea of that is to get a health service but the service is no longer available.”

Steve Marsling delivering a petition over lack of Suffolk dental provision to Jo Churchill's office

Steve Marsling delivered a petition over a lack of Suffolk dental provision to Jo Churchill's office in Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

‘Dreadful pain’

Natalie Palmer, 48, from Beccles, has had toothache for four months.

“The pain has been absolutely dreadful, it’s so horrible," she said. "I had to go to A&E to get antibiotics which I think cleared up some of the infection, but I still have cavities where my old filling fell out and I still can’t get a dentist.”

Mrs Palmer, who is disabled, called 111 for help but they told her to go to the dental clinic at the West Suffolk hospital - which closed four years ago.

Natalie Palmer

Natalie Palmer, 48, from Beccles, has had toothache for four months - Credit: Supplied

Mr Marsling said that story was echoed by many people he had spoken to with the 111 service not fit for purpose when it comes to dentistry.

Mrs Palmer added: “One of my carers had to do her own dentistry with a metal nail file. She had a tooth break and it left a sharp edge which was cutting her tongue. She rang round and couldn’t get in with anyone so she had to take a metal nail file and file it down."

It’ll get better… next summer

The pandemic has magnified a problem which was already more severe in this part of the country than in many others. Ipswich and East Suffolk have more dentists per person than a few years ago, according to NHS figures, but in West Suffolk numbers have collapsed from 71 dentists per 100,000 in 2020 people to 56. 

The figures also show the number of dentists leaving the profession doubled last year. 

From last March to last June, face-to-face dentistry was cancelled altogether save for the most extreme emergencies, and since then Covid restrictions have meant clinics cannot see as many patients as before.

NHS Dentist protest in Bury St Edmunds. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

The next big meeting for Toothless in Suffolk will be with the NHS in November - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Any use of equipment like a drill or a high-pressure water pick creates an aerosol mist, so to minimise the risk of viral spread dentists must leave “fallow time” for the air in the room to be safe again - up to an hour between patients in many cases.

It means, with too few dentists to begin with, and those there currently are working more slowly than before, those in pain can see little light at the end of the tunnel.

NHS England told this paper it was currently in the process of procuring new dental services for Suffolk and Norfolk,. 

These new services are due to be running in summer next year and will be open from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week, 365 days of the year including all Bank Holidays. 

They will also provide dental care services to vulnerable people in the area, including homeless people, asylum seekers and those that do not have recourse to public funds. These services are planned to be in operation by June 2022.

But that will be scant reassurance to those currently in constant pain.

‘He can’t eat his roast’

Kay Piper and Peter Chenery

Kay Piper and her partner Peter Chenery, from Lowestoft, have asked what has happened to the NHS's duty of care - Credit: Archant

Kay Piper’s partner Peter Chenery, 51, has been in pain for months, after their dentist in Lowestoft closed.

The retiree explained: “He’s just lost two more teeth. He was in so much pain. 

“We got him an emergency appointment at a dentist, but it was literally injection in, pull the tooth out, and leave. There was no follow-up. He needs dentures, he needs dental care, and he’s not getting it.

“He probably only got seven or eight teeth left.

“He can only eat soft things now, he’s unable to chew. He loves pork, but he can’t have it because he’s got no teeth to chew it with, so he can’t eat a roast dinner. 

“How is it fair? He’s worked every day of his life.”

Peter Chenery

Peter Chenery, 51, has only seven teeth left now but has been warned it might be 2024 before he can have dentures fitted by the NHS - Credit: Archant

Mr Chenery said: "It's terrible, it's changed the whole of my face, there are no NHS dentists anywhere and I don't know how or when it's going to get any better.

"The dentists I spoke to the other week said it would be 2023 or 2024 before I could get it sorted out, because of the backlog of people who can afford to go private.

"I think that's wrong - what happened to being treated equally, and the NHS's duty of care?"

More than slogans

Hannah Woolnough, chair of the British Dental Association’s English Council and a dentist in Woodbridge, said the crisis was building before the pandemic.

Hannah Woolnough

Hannah Woolnough, Chair of the British Dental Association’s English Council - Credit: Archant

“Dentists are still working to tight restrictions that have slashed our capacity,” she said. “The result is massive backlogs, and patients not getting the care they need.  

“It will take more than slogans from the government if we’re going to build back better.” 

An NHS spokesperson in the East of England, said: “Urgent and emergency dental care is available for those who need it, and people should continue to use the NHS 111 service for advice on where to go.

“Forty-nine urgent dental care hubs are in operation in the East of England to provide care for people with urgent and emergency dental problems, and we are committed to ensuring everyone can access high quality dental care, and we are working closely with dental providers to improve access to services.”

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