NHS: just grin and bear it?

As we tuck into our Easter eggs, Gayle looks at the service which should be worting out the decay problems it brings, but can't - our NHS dentists.

Did the Easter Bunny bring you enough chocolate to reduce your teeth to decaying stumps?

Then you are probably not too delighted with the news that dentists are rejecting the new NHS contracts, said by the government to bring financial security with a guaranteed income rather than payment per treatment.

With NHS dentists already in short supply, more practices are dropping out in favour of private practice, or only offering NHS treatment to children.

The situation in the west of the county is slightly less depressing than the east, where only 33 of 56 NHS practices had signed up to the new contract at the last count.

Out of 34 in west Suffolk, 25 had accepted the new arrangement.

Dentists, like doctors, have a God-like power over their patients' well-being, and goodness knows I wouldn't want to offend them.

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(Have you ever seen the film Marathon Man, where Laurence Olivier demonstrates the potential terror of a dentist gone bad?)

Health Minister Rosie Winterton estimates that a dentists with a `high level of commitment' to the NHS could earn around £80,000 plus practice expenses under the new deal, which sounds like quite a lot.

But apparently, it's not about the money. Dentists are afraid they won't be able to offer the first class service they would like to within the NHS so they are forced to go private.

The question is, how many of their patients can afford to subscribe to this first class service through a private payment plan.

And, in any case, aren't we already paying for dental treatment under the National Insurance scheme?

The government estimates that about half of patients will stay with their current practice, even if it goes private and, allowing for natural inertia and a relationship of trust built up with your dentist, that is probably about right.

But it still means that the other half may be dropping out of the service, with no safety net.

Children are more likely to be offered treatment somewhere or other but older people, whose teeth are probably deteriorating, are more at risk.

It is already a problem for some people on low incomes to pay the cost of NHS treatment if it involves complicated work and replacement teeth.

As the number of NHS practices shrinks, this can only get worse.

Gappy, discoloured teeth may become a commonplace marker of lowly social status.

The Suffolk West Primary Care Trust has managed to win extra funding to meet the shortfall in dental care, which may result in them paying newly privatised practices to carry out NHS dental work - the dragon devouring its own tail!

So, if you haven't already sunk your gnashers into your full ration of chocolate eggs, it might be worth considering whether you really want to eat them all - or if you should be keeping your teeth in pristine condition to make sure you don't need a visit to the dentist.

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