Struggle to access NHS dentistry in West Sussex made worse by pandemic

Difficulties in accessing NHS dentistry in West Sussex have been made worse by the pandemic, a health watchdog has said.

Even before coronavirus, dentistry was facing unprecedented challenges on multiple fronts including issues with access, huge numbers of people going to A&E with dental problems and rocketing rates of mouth cancer, an investigation by JPIMedia has revealed.

But the pandemic has made the situation substantially worse.

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In West Sussex, residents have spoken out about their struggles to get an NHS dentist appointment.

People are struggling to access NHS dentists in West Sussex. Photo: shutterstock

One woman from Worthing grew so desperate after not being able to register with an NHS dentist that she ended up pulling nine of her own teeth out – read more here.

Meanwhile a man from Chichester had to register with a NHS dentist 35 miles, and an hour’s drive, away from his home due to a lack of NHS availability – read more here.

Healthwatch West Sussex, an independent body which champions the views of health service users, said people had told them it was ‘impossible to find an NHS dentist in some parts of West Sussex’.

Locality manager Katrina Broadhill said that – since the announcement in June that dentists were open again – they had heard ‘a steady stream’ of stories similar to those reported by this newspaper.

Dentistry in Decay: An investigation by JPIMedia

“Many are from people who simply can’t find a dentist willing to provide face-to-face NHS treatment,” she said.

“However, prior to the pandemic we had been raising this as an issue with NHS England, as people were telling us it was impossible to find an NHS dentist in some parts of West Sussex.

“Throughout the pandemic we’ve been working with the dental experts to get clearer information about how people can get access to NHS dental care and have escalated concerns within Sussex and nationally.”

Meanwhile Healthwatch East Sussex said it spoke to the NHS dental helpline on November 17 and was told that no dentists were accepting new NHS patients in Kent or Sussex at the moment, and that this was unlikely to change before Christmas.

They were advised that temporary DIY filling kits were available from pharmacies or supermarkets for cracks or holes in teeth.

The NHS Dental helpline said it was offering telephone consultations in some circumstances, the watchdog said.

Toby Hancock, chairman of the West Sussex Local Dental Committee, who runs Richmond House dental practice in Chichester, said: “Due to years of NHS underfunding and exponential increases of bureaucracy and red tape, the difficulty with finding NHS dentists has always been present.

“Although now even more so due to Covid-19.”

During the first lockdown, all dental practices were stopped from seeing any patients face-to-face.

While practices stayed open, this was only to give advice over the phone, to issue prescriptions directly to pharmacies and to refer people to urgent dental clinics.

Mr Hancock said: “This created a backlog of around three months, including urgent case and routine care.”

The British Dental Association has reported that in the year to the end of August, 15 million appointments have been missed due to the pandemic while the service has only provided around a quarter of the treatments it would normally have done in pre-Covid times.

Mr Hancock said: “Due to a backlog of patients, stricter and more time-consuming procedures in place, the number of patients seen each day dramatically fell for both NHS and private patients.

“Priority remained with those in pain and those who had swellings.

“Even this wasn’t enough and more patients were forced to go to A&E departments or the Emergency Dental Service, as they have nowhere else to go.”

He said the impact on patients was likely to be felt in the long-term.

“The outcome of over six months of delayed NHS examinations and check-ups has meant that routine care has limited all the usual checks that a dentist would undertake on a regular basis,” he said.

“Mouth cancer, other pathology, diseases such as tooth decay and gum disease have all gone unchecked.”

Eddie Crouch, chairman of the British Dental Association, said it was clear that dentistry was now grappling with an ‘existential crisis’.

“Access problems that were common pre-Covid are now the norm in every community,” he said. “Meanwhile, practices face a deeply uncertain future, as they try to balance tight restrictions, higher costs, and a collapse in patient numbers.”

He called for a clear plan to keep services afloat and for real investment in prevention.

“We cannot risk a ‘new normal’ of care for the few and widening oral health inequalities,” he said.

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.”

See more from our #dentistryindecay investigation:
Struggle to access NHS dentistry in West Sussex made worse by pandemic