Shortage of NHS dentists bites
FAMILIES are finding it increasingly difficult to find an NHS dentist in Suffolk and Essex, it has been warned.Serious shortages of dentists practising on the NHS are forcing some surgeries to close lists – while those who do offer NHS treatment are being overwhelmed with work.
FAMILIES are finding it increasingly difficult to find an NHS dentist in Suffolk and Essex, it has been warned.
Serious shortages of dentists practising on the NHS are forcing some surgeries to close lists – while those who do offer NHS treatment are being overwhelmed with work.
New figures show the number of patients treated by each NHS dentist in parts of Suffolk and Essex is far higher than the national average.
Richard Ward, a consultant in dental public health for the Suffolk Public Health Network, said: "I don't think we can carry on as we are. We have to change."
He added: "There is no doubt that access to NHS dentists has got more difficult in recent years.
"We have a problem with recruiting in this area. If a dentist retires, his practice has a great deal of difficulty recruiting another dentist. It is not helped by the fact that we do not have a dental teaching school in our region.
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"What you have to ask yourself is why are there more and more dentists moving into the private sector?
"It's not about money it is about the constraints of the system. When they move into the private sector they shed their burdens but they also lose their NHS pension."
However, Government reforms are planned in 2005, which he believes are "going in the right direction".
In June, there were 186 NHS dentists in Suffolk, with 55 in Ipswich's primary care trust, 86 in west Suffolk's, 26 in Suffolk Coastal's and 19 covering central Suffolk, according to the NHS dental practice board.
Mr Ward said: "We would like more NHS dentists in the county. If you look at Suffolk as a whole on average access is better than the national average but there are pockets of difficulties, generally north of Halesworth, in the Leiston area, and around Brandon."
Although the number of dentists has slowly increased over the last five years, dentists in some parts of the county had to contend with list sizes bigger than the national average of 1,482 patients per dentist, according to the latest figures.
Mr Ward said this was due to the growth in the population and the fact people are now more aware of keeping their teeth healthy.
Each dentist registered in the Ipswich PCT area had, on average, nearly 500 more patients on their books than the national average, while those in Suffolk coastal had around 150 more and those in central Suffolk had just over 100 more.
The situation was similar over the border in Essex where the average list size for each dentist in the area covered by the Tendring trust had more than 2,200 patients, with Chelmsford lists averaging at 1,587 people.
Yet in west Suffolk and Colchester list sizes were below the national average.
Mr Ward said this was due to the fact NHS dentists have no obligation to locate their practices in places where there is a high demand for them – though this would change after April 2005.
When people do register with NHS dentists on average they have to pay £75.64 for a jacket crown, £5.84 for an amalgam filling and £5.48 for a clinical examination.
Private charges differ between each surgery but they are generally more expensive than the NHS charges.
Christopher Winning, who is soon retiring as a partner in a dental surgery in Northgate Street, Bury St Edmunds, said: "Most people here can afford to go private but there are some people that can't or do not want to."
He added that there were only a certain number of patients that each NHS dentist could see but there came a point "where you have to say 'sorry I can't take any more'" and close the lists.
"We have not taken in NHS patients for two years as we are snowed under. Two of us are retiring soon in any case," he said.
"We used to have about seven partners with 16,000 patients. Some of the other partners have gone private now.
"It has got too much and the administration and bureaucracy has got absolutely ridiculous."
Chris Roome works at Heybridge Dental Practice, near Maldon. He is chairman of the North Essex Local Dental Committee and the North Essex branch of the British Dental Association.
He said there was a problem with recruiting dentists, partly because there are not enough dentists for the population and partly because new dentists do not want to work in practices treating NHS patients and do not want to set up their own practices.
Essex dental practices suffer from having higher overheads than surgeries elsewhere in the country and yet their NHS fees are the same as those received by dentists in other parts of the country where the cost of living is lower.
Dentists get paid for NHS patients according to a fixed amount for each treatment – like factory piece work, whereas private work is paid according to an assessment of how long the treatment will take, how difficult it will be and which materials are used.
"If a dentist has a choice between treating 50 NHS patients a day or 10 private patients, it's not difficult to see which most would choose," said Mr Roome.
He stressed dentists would opt for the 10 private patients, not because they are lazy, but because they can choose more expensive sophisticated materials than for NHS patients.
"Whatever angle you attack the problem there's an issue of funding," he said.
A department of health spokesperson said: "We recognise that some patients do have difficulty accessing NHS dentists in certain areas. We are committed to tackling these difficulties."
She added that by April 2005, Primary Care Trusts would take control of the £1.2 billion dental services budget from central government.
This would make the trusts responsible for the provision of primary dental care and it would be a "local decision how best to provide it."