Seven West Sussex dental practices gave up their NHS contracts during pandemic

Seven dental practices in West Sussex have given up their NHS contracts since April 2020, councillors have been told.

The news was shared during a meeting of West Sussex County Council’s Health and Adult Social Care scrutiny committee (HASC) on Friday (January 21).

This comes as NHS dentistry in England and Wales was described as ‘hanging by a thread’ as the number of dentists continues to drop.

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Mark Ridgeway, senior commissioning manager (Dental) NHS England, told the meeting that all but two of the contracts were given up for financial reasons.

NHS dentistry is 'hanging by a thread' in England and Wales according to one assessment

Mr Ridgeway explained that funding offered by the NHS was based on information logged in 2004/05.

While the amounts received by each practice had increased since then, in line with national recommendations, some still received more money than others.

He added: “It is often the case that it is those that are earning lower amounts [who] have terminated their contracts for financial reasons.

“It isn’t financially viable for them to run an NHS business with the increasing costs

“But unfortunately we are not able to increase contract payments without an associated increase in activity.”

Mr Ridgeway assured the meeting that the money associated with each contract was returned to NHS England and re-invested back into dentistry – initially being offered through temporary contracts to any practice able to offer support.

Access to dentistry was one of the main subjects of discussion during the meeting, with Katrina Broadhill, of consumer champion Healthwatch, pointing out that it had been a problem even before the pandemic.

In a report to the committee, Healthwatch said: “People in every corner of

West Sussex are struggling to get the dental treatment they need when they

need it.

“That is why Healthwatch is again calling on the government and NHS England to speed up dental contract reform and provide significant and sustained funding to tackle the underlying problems of dental access and affordability.”

The Healthwatch report shared a number of worrying experiences from patients, such as people ringing multiple dentists for an appointment but being rejected or receiving no response at all, children missing out on treatment, people finding they had been de-registered, and a pregnant woman being charged private rates for treatment.

The latter reflected another concern raised by the committee – fears that NHS dentistry would become a thing of the past.

James Walsh (Lib Dem, Littlehampton East) said access to dentistry, both nationally and in West Sussex, had got ‘steadily worse’.

He added: “I believe that what we’re witnessing is privatisation of the dental services by stealth or by the back door.

“More and more patients are being faced with the stark choice of either paying privately to get it done or not getting dental care at all.”

Dr Walsh called for a report on the national shortage of dentists, stressing the need for more people to take up a dentistry career and even for qualified dentists to be employed from oversees.

His recommendation that the council write to the Secretary of State about the shortage and the need for incentives to keep dentists within the NHS, was taken up by the committee.