Suffolk's NHS dentists crisis revealed

By Mark HeathLARGE parts of Suffolk do not have any dentists taking on adult NHS patients, an East Anglian Daily Times investigation has revealed.Of the county's five primary care trusts, two do not have any dentists who can offer NHS treatment to adults.

By Mark Heath

LARGE parts of Suffolk do not have any dentists taking on adult NHS patients, an East Anglian Daily Times investigation has revealed.

Of the county's five primary care trusts, two do not have any dentists who can offer NHS treatment to adults.

Those areas - Central Suffolk and Suffolk Coastal - boast important towns and villages including Stowmarket, Woodbridge, Needham Market, Hadleigh and Felixstowe.

But the figures make for further grim reading when they are broken down into the region's biggest towns.

In Bury St Edmunds, none of the town's 10 listed dental practices are open to adult NHS patients and just one will take on youngsters.

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Although Ipswich boasts 31 listed dentists, only four will treat adult NHS patients, while six can take on child patients.

Just two of Lowestoft's eight practices are taking on new adult and child NHS patients.

The latest figures appear to fly in the face of a Government pledge made by Health Secretary John Reid last summer, when he promised to bring in an extra 1,000 new NHS dentists by October this year.

The EADT first reported the crisis in July last year and since then nine more dentists have opened around the county - but it is clear that they have not eased the growing problem.

At the time, fears were voiced that the region's dental health could be a ticking timebomb and the latest situation will do little to alleviate that concern.

It is also feared that people who cannot register with an NHS dentist may simply avoid treatment altogether, rather than pay for private care.

A spokesman for the Suffolk East primary care trusts, which includes Central Suffolk and Suffolk Coastal, said: “Although the number of NHS dentists in Central Suffolk and Suffolk Coastal is low compared nationally, the number of people registered with NHS dentists is higher than average.

“In the last available figures (June 2004), 52% of people in Suffolk Coastal are registered with an NHS dentist, and 54% in Central Suffolk. Nationally the figure is 47%.

“Despite this, the primary care trusts do accept that there are difficulties for patients accessing NHS dentists and we working hard to address this.

“Responsibility for NHS dentistry does not fully rest with the primary care trusts until April 2006 when the new General Dental Service Contract comes in.

“We look forward to taking on this responsibility when we will be able to undertake a local needs analysis and respond appropriately.”

The spokesman said there were efforts nationally to address the severe shortages of dentists, but added these would only help in the longer term.

“It does not help that we are not close to any dental school - the nearest are in London - as dentists often remain in or around where they trained,” he said.

“Our number one priority must be to maintain the NHS dentists that we have. The primary care trusts will not be working in isolation, but will be working with dentists and their staff both within our own primary care trusts and with other primary care trusts in Suffolk.

“We also look forward to working with planning departments within local authorities to encourage dental practices into our area.

“We would wish to encourage planning authorities to look favourably upon applications from potential new practices, even if this may not comply with the Local Plan, which because of its very lengthy life cycle, is sometimes difficult to influence.”

Richard Hanlon, chairman of the Suffolk Local Dental Association, said: “It's a problem at the moment. I think that just about everybody who needs urgent treatment are getting it somewhere or another.

“Really the problem is we cannot get dentists to East Anglia. Young dentists prefer to stay near where they qualified and we have not got a dental school here and consequently it's difficult to get people to come here.

“Most established dentists have enough patients and it is only by increasing the size of practices that we could take extra patients.”

Mr Hanlon added: “The Government is going to re-jig the dental NHS next year, which they tell us will sort the problem.

“They say extra dentists they're going to bring from Poland and Spain will help matters, but we'll have to wait and see.”

A Department of Health spokesman said all primary care trusts had action plans to enable more people to see an NHS dentist, and some included the international recruitment of dentists.

“There are some 200 internationally-recruited dentists already working in the NHS,” he added.

“This is a way of easing problems in the short term, but is just one part of a huge programme of reform which includes unprecedented investment, new ways of working which thousands of dentists tells us they like, 1,000 extra dentists by October and 170 extra undergraduate training places starting this year.”

mark.heath@eadt.co.uk

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