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Millions of people have been left without access to dental care after 2,000 dentists quit the NHS in England last year, a report has warned.
The number of NHS dentists fell from 23,733 at the end of 2020 to 21,544 at the end of January this year, according to the Association of Dental Groups (ADG).
It means around 4million people could struggle to get treatment on the NHS, given each dentist has a caseload of about 2,000 patients.
The NHS now has the smallest dentist workforce in a decade, according to the ADG, which obtained the figures through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
In the report, seen by The Guardian, the trade association warns: ‘We are now seeing ‘dental deserts’ emerge across the country where there is almost no chance of ever seeing an NHS dentist for routine care.
‘Dental deserts present a serious risk to the dental health of millions of NHS patients in England.’
Millions of people have been left without access to dental care after the number of NHS dentists fell to their lowest level ever last year (stock)
The ADG also warned it could spell a silent rise in mouth cancers and diabetes, which are often spotted at check-ups.
North Lincolnshire is identified as the part of England with the smallest number of NHS dentists per 100,000 people, at just 32, according to the report.
Boost for cancer checks: Record three million patients were referred over past year
A record-breaking three million patients were referred for cancer checks over the past year amid a post-pandemic surge.
The number has risen from 2.4million, according to NHS data. Figures also reveal that around 315,000 patients started treatment for the disease in the last year, 2,000 up on pre-Covid numbers.
Dame Cally Palmer, national cancer director for NHS England, said there were still 30,000 people who have not yet begun treatment due to the pandemic. But she added that the latest figures suggest progress is being made to diagnose patients earlier.
To meet the higher demand for cancer checks, NHS services are being expanded including one-stop shops for tests, mobile clinics and symptom hotlines.
Charities welcomed the rise in referrals but warned of the ‘devastating impact’ of the pandemic on cancer care and urged ministers to tackle the long-term problem of NHS understaffing.
Dame Cally said: ‘We are going further and faster than ever before in our ambitions to diagnose more cancers at an earlier stage so that we can save more lives.
‘We have seen record numbers of people coming forward for checks in the last year, but we know there are still at least 30,000 who haven’t started treatment due to the pandemic, so it’s vital that we keep these referral rates high.’
Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England national clinical director for cancer, said: ‘We know the pandemic meant that at first we saw fewer patients, but in the last year GPs have been referring people for investigation in record numbers and have been working hard to make sure people with worrying symptoms can be seen.’
The NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCG) in North East Lincolnshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire both have just 37 NHS dentists for every 100,000 people.
Access to NHS dental care is so limited in the worst affected areas that people in are forced to wait for up three years for an appointment, the report claims.
The ADG blames Covid, Brexit and Government underfunding of NHS dental services for the ‘critical’ situation.
Dentists say their current NHS contract is fuelling the exodus, along with a growing gap between the number retiring and those being recruited.
The ADG fears the situation will worsen when new rules, which come into force at the end of the year, mean healthcare qualifications obtained by workers from the European Economic Area will no longer be recognised.
Dentists from the EEA, which includes the European Union, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, have historically made up about a fifth of new recruits.
Louise Ansari, national director of NHS watchdog Healthwatch England, told The Guardian: ‘People are struggling to get the dental treatment they need when they need it. This is a hugely worrying issue.
‘Children, disabled people and people living in care homes are the worst affected
‘Some dental practices have either shut down or have gone fully private, with some dentists having used up their total NHS capacity and are asking people for private fees instead.’
The ADG report also reveals that just a quarter (26.1 per cent) of adults in Thurrock in Essex have seen an NHS dentist in the previous two years, the lowest anywhere.
It was followed by West Essex (27.3 per cent) and Kent and Medway (29.3 per cent).
Thurrock was also home to the lowest proportion of children who saw a dentist in the last year (30.7 per cent).
North-east London is next (32.2 per cent) followed by North Lincolnshire (35.3 per cent).
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We’ve given the NHS £50 million to fund up to 350,000 extra dental appointments and we are growing the workforce so people can get the oral care they need – in December 2021, there were 264 more dentists registered than the previous year.’
‘We are committed to levelling up health outcomes across the country – we have set up the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities to address the long-standing health disparities and will publish a white paper this year to ensure everyone has the chance to live longer and healthier lives, regardless of background,’ the spokesperson added.
NHS figures last month showed some 40million dental appointments – equivalent to a whole year’s worth of care – have been lost since March 2020.