NHS dentist shortage 'worse than ever'

FEWER dental surgeries than ever in Suffolk are taking on new NHS patients - despite the introduction of government contracts aimed at improving accessibility.

FEWER dental surgeries than ever in Suffolk are taking on new NHS patients - despite the introduction of government contracts aimed at improving accessibility.

Of the county's 96 registered dental practices only 12 currently offer National Health Service treatment for new adult patients, according to latest figures.

The picture is only slightly better for the region's youngsters with 15 surgeries providing care for those up to 18 years old.

The findings appear to run contrary to the government's claims that the new dentistry contracts, which came into force earlier this year, would improve access for patients and lead to better prevention and quality of care.


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Instead it seems many dentists have favoured a move to the private sector which has left some patients in Suffolk on long waiting lists or struggling to find a surgery close to home.

In Ipswich there are 30 dental practices open to NHS patients of which only five are currently accepting new adult and child patients.

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In Bury St Edmunds it is even bleaker with none of the town's 10 practices accepting new adults and only one taking on youngsters.

Meanwhile in Lowestoft there are nine surgeries of which only two are accepting new adults and children.

Peter Ward, chief executive of the British Dental Association, said the findings reflected dentists' growing frustration with the government contracts.

He said: “We know that nationally one in 10 dentists didn't sign the new contract in April, so it's not surprising that this appears to be reflected locally.

“The new contract was supposed to have improved access, but the reality is that many dentists are frustrated by the target-driven contract which doesn't give them time to spend with their patients, nor does it place any value on preventative work.”

David Ruffley, Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, said health chiefs had been warned the new contracts would lead to a “haemorrhage” of dentists away from the NHS and government officials had to return to the drawing board and start over.

But a spokesman for Suffolk Primary Care Trust said access to NHS dentistry was improving across the whole of the county - including the Waveney district which is now part of Great Yarmouth and Waveney PCT.

He said: “In the period immediately before and after the implementation of the new dental contract in April, very few dental practices in Suffolk - possibly, only one or two - were accepting new NHS patients.”

He said they believed there were actually 16 practices accepting new adult patients in the county and 19 accepting children.

“Only six of the county's 102 practices did not sign the new contract, which is why there are currently 96 treating NHS patients in Suffolk today - and the majority of those six had small NHS lists.

“There were some gloomy predictions that the contract could be the death knell of NHS dentistry. Our experience here in Suffolk is that it has had the opposite effect.”

In north Essex the situation seems brighter with 62 of the 83 registered practices taking on new adults and 74 offering treatment to children.

Tony Clough, secretary of the north Essex dental committee, said: “The PCTs have worked hard with the dentists in north Essex and we perhaps haven't suffered with funding problems like Suffolk.

“A lot of money was taken out of the contract in Suffolk but in north Essex it's likely some of the trusts gained more money or stayed the same so dentists could continue as before, which has been a big advantage.”

Mr Clough said more worrying is that new patients might not be getting the same amount of treatment as they received previously

“Dentists were previously paid for everything but now they get a set amount no matter how much they do,” he said. “Therefore patients might be getting a good enough treatment to solve problems short term but not necessarily a full course of care.”

Under the new contracts, which were introduced in April, courses of treatment are split into three bands which cost £15.10 for routine exams, £42.40 for fillings or extractions or £189 for dentures or crowns.

Patients can receive as many different courses of treatment within any one band and pay the same fixed price.

This could mean having two fillings and two extractions and paying £42.40 but it could also mean paying the same amount for just one filling.

A spokesman for the Department of Health denied there was a shortage of dentists and said the contracts had been a success.

“NHS dentistry is not in the grip of a crisis - far from it,” he said. “The new contracts for dentists have finally allowed Primary Care Trusts to start building sustainable local dental services rather than the piecemeal service we had before.”

Suffolk dentists with NHS vacancies

Area Number of Practices taking on adult Practices taking on child

dental practices NHS patients NHS patients

West Suffolk 29 2 3

Ipswich 30 4 4

Waveney 15 3 3

Suffolk Coastal 14 2 3

Central Suffolk 8 1 2

TOTAL 96 12 15

Situation at 12/4/05 109 14 31

Situation at 17/07/04 100 13 26

Essex dentists with NHS vacancies

Area Number of Practices taking on adult Practices taking on child

Dental practices NHS patients NHS patients

Chelmsford 17 10 17

Colchester 25 17 18

Maldon & south 10 9 9

Chelmsford

Tendring 13 11 13

Witham, Braintree 18 15 17

& Halstead

TOTAL 83 62 74

*Data from the NHS direct website

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