Access to dental care: lockdown exacerbates existing problem

Accessing NHS dental care is a problem for a significant amount of people in England. And the Covid-19 lockdown has only led to more issues for people requiring treatment.

This is according to Healthwatch England’s recent review of more than 1,300 people’s experiences. The organisation said that some people were being asked to wait up to three years for NHS treatment – largely a result of the backlog created by dental practices closing from March to June 2020.

Meanwhile, those who were able to pay for private treatment were able to book appointments within a week.

Dental treatment accessibility

The Healthwatch England report found a number of issues plaguing dental patients. They included people being taken off practice lists because they hadn’t made an appointment sooner or practices repeatedly cancelling appointments – occasionally even though the patient was midway through a course of treatment.

According to the report, some dentists have thousands of people on their waiting lists, while some people have said they are unable to even be added to a waiting list.

Other patients who called 111 for emergency dental care were instructed to use salt water and continue contacting practices to find treatment.

Affordability concerns

Affordability was a significant concern for many. Healthwatch England said 27% of respondents to its survey said they struggle to afford dental treatment – or they avoid it altogether as they cannot afford it.

Meanwhile, 39% of people said they had been charged extra for their NHS dental treatments.

Imelda Redmond, Healthwatch England national director, said: “Reform of dental contracts needs to be a matter of urgency for this government.

“New arrangements should include making access to NHS dental services equal and affordable for everyone, regardless of where people live, their income and ethnicity. Failing to act now will result in long-term harm for thousands of people, putting even greater pressure on the already overstretched healthcare system.”

Oral health risks

These obstacles to accessibility serve to make it more worrying that potentially dangerous DIY teeth-whitening kits are being sold online – with some containing more than the legal amount of bleach, putting people’s oral health at risk.

Consumer champions Which? found that certain products contain illegal levels of hydrogen peroxide, which could burn gums and permanently damage teeth.

Without the necessary access to dental care, people who then suffer from problems as a result of their whitening treatments could experience tooth loss.

The dental healthcare system in England is already under huge strain. Those facing damage from teeth-whitening kits could find it more difficult to access corrective treatment than they may have assumed.

How long the country finds itself dealing with the effect of the pandemic is yet to be seen – but what is clear is that the dental healthcare system does not currently work for everyone. And that is something that will require real attention.

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