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Are UK NHS dentists facing extinction?

On July 5, 1948, Aneurin Bevan established the core principles of the UK NHS, designed to meet the needs of all, and free at the point of delivery. Dentistry has been walking its own path for some time now however (free at the point of use dentistry for all was ended just three years later), and NHS dentistry is unequivocally in crisis.

Over the last few weeks, HBI has been chatting with UK dental operators – and the odd practitioner – to update HBI Intelligence. Most recently, a practicing NHS dentist told our editor glumly while examining his teeth: “You won’t find many dentists willing to take on NHS patients. I am a unicorn.”

She was, she said, despairing of the situation which has seen over 3,000 dentists leave the NHS since the pandemic began.

Listen to any UK NHS dentist and they will tell you the system is broken, with direct investment dropping by a quarter in real terms in the decade to 2020, and inflation-busting patient charges hikes (even NHS patients pay a contribution towards the total cost) plugging a gap in a flatlining NHS budget.

We have been hearing for a couple of years that the government recognised the problem, and more optimistic operators have been telling us for some time that the problem will soon be addressed.

When? And what will be left when (and if) that happens?

A detailed study by the BBC last week showed nine in 10 NHS dental practices in the UK are not accepting new patients. Who has benefitted from this? Private practitioners, for one – with groups focussed on private pay telling us on (and off) the record that they have never had it so good – at least when it comes to demand.

The British Dental Association is in continuous discussions to try to reform a payment system that can pay as much for 10 fillings as it does for one. But with healthcare budgets stretched and so much of the rest of the NHS untouchable for political reasons, there is a real question as to whether there is an unspoken acceptance in the corridors of power that dentistry is sliding out of NHS hands forever.

Perhaps ‘dodo’ would have been a better description than ‘unicorn’. There looks to be a surprisingly real risk that without drastic action, NHS dentists in the UK could soon become extinct too.

We would welcome your thoughts on this story. Email your views to David Farbrother or call 0207 183 3779.