NHS dentist numbers in England at lowest level in a decade | Dentists

NHS dentist numbers in England at lowest level in a decade | Dentists

Rishi Sunak is under pressure over his claims about the state of dentistry as figures reveal that the number of active NHS dentists in England is at its lowest level in a decade, leaving millions of people struggling to get checkups or have toothaches fixed.

The British Dental Association (BDA) has warned of an exodus of dentists from the NHS as it published figures showing that the workforce has been reduced to a level not seen since 2012-13.

Sunak has repeatedly said that 500 extra dentists had been recorded as providing NHS services in the 2021-22 financial year.

A growing number of dental surgeries do little or no NHS-funded work, with the BDA citing a £3bn dental budget that has failed to keep pace with inflation and population growth over the past decade.

A total of 23,577 dentists performed NHS work in the 2022-23 financial year, down 695 on the previous year, according to a response to a freedom of information request from the NHS Business Services Authority. That figure is more than 1,100 down on the pre-pandemic numbers.

The loss of dentists within the system has led to nearly 6 million adults trying and failing to get an NHS dentist appointment in the past two years, according to a recent analysis by the BDA.

The official figures on the NHS dentistry workforce appear to contradict the prime minister’s claims that recent reforms have boosted numbers.

The BDA said it thought the prime minister was relying on a rise in activity from dentists in the NHS in the financial year 2021-22 that had naturally followed the end of the Covid lockdown.

Shawn Charlwood, who chairs the British Dental Association’s general dental practice committee, said: “[The] government needs to drop the spin, accept the facts, and provide a rescue package to keep this service afloat. NHS dentistry is haemorrhaging talent, and further tweaks to a broken system will not stem the flow.

“The prime minister once called for this budget to be ringfenced. We face an access crisis, and with hundreds of millions set to be pulled away, funds must be put to work solving these problems.

“Ministers have a choice. They can help thousands of struggling practices fill vacancies and see patients, or just pass by on the other side.”

The BDA has been asking ministers to recycle money returned to the government by dentistry practices that have been unable to hit their contractual targets. It is estimated this could exceed £400m this year.

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The fall in workforce numbers highlighted in the figures is also said by the BDA to underplay the full scale of lost capacity in NHS dentistry.

A recent BDA survey of dentists in England revealed that half of dentists (50.3%) had reduced the proportion of NHS work they did by more than a quarter since the start of the pandemic. And 74% indicated that they planned to reduce the amount of NHS work they undertake in the year ahead.

The NHS Business Services Authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the latest figures might be lower than the previous year due to not all NHS dentists having submitted their data for the last financial year.

She said: “We are working to improve access to NHS dental care and have already increased the funding practices receive for high-needs patients to encourage dentists to provide more NHS treatments.

“We have also amended the guidelines so dental therapists and hygienists can deliver more treatments as well as making it easier to recruit dentists from overseas, and we will be setting out further measures to improve access shortly.”