Healthwatch Camden conducted a telephone survey of all 33 dental practices with NHS contracts in Camden to find out about their appointment availability.
Crisis for new patients
During the pandemic, the NHS has reduced targets for dental practices across the country. Practices are delivering significantly less of their pre-pandemic activity due to social distancing measures, increased ‘fallow’ time in between patients, and other restrictions.
“We have zero capacity. We stopped taking new NHS patients a month ago. We stayed open during the pandemic because we quickly put everything in place and had PPE so everyone came to us and now we are overbooked. We can’t even see our own patients because we are so overbooked, it’s dreadful.” – an NHS dental surgery in Camden
The findings show that around 3 in 5 dental practices projected an average waiting time of 3 months before registering new NHS patients and booking their dental appointments.
“We can’t say yet, but not any time soon.”
The situation somewhat better for ‘existing’ patients
On a positive note, it was found that 4 in 5 dental practices were able to offer some services to those NHS patients who dental surgeries identified as ‘existing’ patients. The survey findings showed that the waiting times for existing NHS patients to book an appointment varied from one week to three months.
Ample availability of private dental appointments for those who can pay
The evidence showed that residents were more likely to be seen by the dental practice if they were ready to pay, as almost two-thirds of dental practices confirmed that they were accepting private appointments for new or existing patients. The waiting time for private appointments varied from one day to 2 months.
Residents who contacted Healthwatch Camden about access to dentistry over the last year reported being offered a private appointment after being denied the NHS appointment. Some reported feeling pressure to pay privately for care, which left them feeling confused and concerned that they were being treated unfairly.
“They all are happy to book me immediately for a private appointment, but are saying they are too busy to take on new NHS patients (which doesn’t make sense if they have availability to book me right away as private).” – patient via email May 2021.
Commenting on the findings, Matthew Parris, Director of Healthwatch Camden, said:
“The limited availability and long waiting times for NHS dental care in the Borough are a real concern. Whilst the problem is not specific to Camden, or London, it is one which risks exacerbating the health inequalities that were growing even before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Echoing a similar sentiment, Shawn Charlwood, Chair of the British Dental Association’s General Dental Practice Committee said:
“NHS dentistry was in crisis before COVID struck, as an underfunded and overstretched service limped on, leaving millions with few options. Since lockdown, that crisis has reached new levels.”
The British Dental Association estimate that over 75,000 fewer appointments have taken place in Camden since the first lockdown, including 22,000 fewer for children.
Dental services for children
The findings also showed that only four practices were able to offer appointments for children (both new and existing NHS patients) for their dental needs even though all children up to the age of 18 are eligible for free dental care on the NHS. Additionally, three practices were only able to see children in an emergency.
Patients told to call 111, pay, or wait
Nearly all (29 out of 33) dental surgeries referred patients to NHS 111 when they struggled to give appointments to patients. NHS 111 can provide advice over the phone or refer patients to an emergency dental hub if the situation requires immediate care.
Seven of the 33 practices said they advise patients to call around to other practices to check availability, two said they would advise patients to pay privately, and one said they would take the patients number and call them back if there was a cancellation.
Therefore, most patients must either wait or pay for treatment.
“Find another dentist who can see you on the NHS, which will be rare. Otherwise, wait.”
Matthew Parris continued:
“Good oral health is a key part of the prevention of ill-health. There is a disparity in access to dental services, between those who must wait for treatment and those that can afford to pay for private treatment. If we do not act now, this is bound to exacerbate health inequalities in Camden.”
“Whilst these findings are a snapshot of a period of time, if the issue persists, there will be a growing unmet dentistry need in the Borough.”
In another recent report on dentistry during COVID-19, Healthwatch England also pointed out the difficulty in accessibility and affordability of NHS dental services nationally.
Shawn Charlwood warned:
“We need nothing less than root and branch reform of the way this service operates. Unless we see real change these headlines will become the norm, and NHS dentistry will exist in name only.”
Healthwatch Camden will be working with Camden & Islington Public Health to determine whether a needs assessment of dentistry within the borough is needed. These findings will also be shared with the Local Dental Committee and the NHS.
If you are struggling to access NHS dentistry, please call NHS 111 for advice or get in touch with Healthwatch Camden by email at email@example.com or call on 020 7383 2402.
You can find the full report on NHS dentistry in Camden here.
Notes to editors
- Healthwatch is the independent watchdog created to gather and represent the views of the public. Healthwatch plays a role at both the national and local levels to ensure that the views of people that use services are taken into account. It provides a collective voice for health and social care users in Camden.
- Healthwatch Camden has a seat on the Camden Health and Wellbeing Board and can alert Healthwatch England and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to concerns about services.
- Local Healthwatch functions and powers are set out in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. This includes the power to refer its concerns to the local Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
- For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org / 0207 3832 402.