Critics have blamed the trend on rocketing fees for NHS dentistry and continued difficulty accessing appointments – even before the first coronavirus wave brought dental treatment to a standstill.
In 2018-19, 1298 patients turned up at A&E departments at hospitals run by Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – costing an estimated £218,064, figures obtained by JPIMedia Investigations show.
This was less than the 1,554 that presented at hospitals the year before, the Freedom of Information request revealed.
However in the first three quarters 2019-20, the latest period for which data was available, the figure already stood at 1052.
In England, almost 64,000 people suffering dental problems turned to A&E departments and minor injury units in 2019/20, figures released by hospital trusts under the Freedom of Information Act show.
And with not all NHS bodies responding to our requests, health experts say they fear the real cost will be higher.
Common complaints included toothache, cavities and gum disease.
The British Dental Association said in almost all cases, patients were unlikely to get anything more than pain relief and would be referred to a dentist, meaning this route offered people little help while lumbering the NHS with extra costs.
Dave Cottam, chairman of its General Dental Practice committee, said: “It’s no surprise patients were turning up at A&E departments in droves.
“Millions have struggled to secure an NHS dental appointment, and those that do find themselves clobbered with inflation-busting hikes in charges.
“Covid has simply upped the ante. When ministers treat dentistry as a Cinderella service the impact is felt across the NHS.
“Sadly, a decade of cuts is pushing patients to overstretched A&E medics and GPs who are neither trained nor equipped to treat them.
“We will see no progress until the Government stops treating our patients like a cash cow and provides adequate funding.”
People with urgent tooth problems are advised to seek treatment at emergency dental services instead of A&Es.
But Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust, which runs these services in West Sussex, said they were under ‘exceptional pressures’.
Emergency dental services are provided out-of-hours at centres in Worthing, Chichester, Crawley and Haywards Heath by appointment only, and on a first-come, first-served basis.
A spokesman said: “This limited service is under exceptional pressure.
“Already in 2020 we have provided nearly 12,000 emergency appointments, and have been offering consultation and treatment throughout the pandemic.”
The spokesman advised anyone who has a dental emergency outside of normal surgery hours, which cannot wait to see their own dentist, to call their local emergency dental clinic to ask for an appointment.
Full details are available at www.sussexcommunity.nhs.uk
A spokesperson for NHS England disputed the claim that people were struggling to get dental appointments, saying: “Nearly 25,000 dentists are offering NHS care – the highest number on record – and during the first wave of the pandemic, over 600 urgent dental centres were set up so patients could access the care they needed.
“Dental practices are open and are understandably prioritising urgent care alongside recalling patients to complete routine care.”
When it comes to fees for NHS dentistry, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Dental charges help towards the running costs of the NHS, but we carefully consider them every year and continue to offer people on low-incomes free treatment through exemptions and the NHS low-income scheme.”
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