The British Dental Association has pointed to an emerging crisis in NHS dentistry, following new research from the BBC showing just half of dental practices in England currently accept new adult NHS patients.
Analysis of 2,500 dental practices on NHS Choices and follow up phone calls revealed 52% of dental practices are accepting new adult patients, and just 60% accepting new child NHS patients.
BBC Yorkshire collected data on 83% of all of the dental practices listed within its region (561 practices out of a total of 677). Just 20% of practices were accepting new NHS adult patients, whilst 27.3% were accepting new child NHS patients.
The BDA has pointed to continued failures from government to make a decisive break from the contract system which sets quotas on patient numbers, and the lack of effective public information campaigns and a growing reliance on patient charge revenue, which discourages patients on low incomes.
Latest figures from NHS Digital show that half of all adults and nearly 5 million children are not seeing a dentist regularly. Patient Charge revenue has grown by 66% in last decade, while direct state investment is in decline.
Tooth decay remains the leading reason for hospital admissions among children, and dentists have argued that continued failure to set strategy is placing huge pressures on GP and A&E services. The BDA advocates a shift to a genuinely preventive contract for NHS dentists in England, and a national programme to tackle decay modeled on successful initiatives in Scotland and Wales, and the anti-obesity campaign Change 4 Life.
The BDA's Chair of General Dental Practice Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen said:
"These figures are a stark reminder that government has no interest in getting more people attending an NHS dentist.
"Many dentists would love to do more NHS work, but the contract imposed on them penalises them when they don't hit quotas, and does not pay them when they do more. Despite years of promises we are no closer to a decisive break from a model that puts government targets ahead of patient need.
"Ministers' principal interest is keeping costs down, so they pay less while patients put more in through charges. This pursuit of quick savings is wholly counterproductive, as patients who cannot find or delay treatment are simply piling huge pressures on other parts of the NHS.
"Our patients are losing out because dentistry has been treated as a Cinderella service. Morale is at an all time low, and many colleagues are now looking for the exit. In place of indifference we urgently require a coherent strategy and real commitment from government."