The British Dental Association (BDA) has called on government to act as new figures show nearly 42% of children in England are missing out on free dental care.
According to new data from NHS Digital nearly 5 million children (4.9m) have not had a free check-up in the 12 months to June 2017 – 41.8%, down by just 0.2% on 2016 figures - despite NICE guidelines recommending children should be seen by a dentist at least once a year.
Figures also show that almost half (48.6%) of adults in England have not seen an NHS dentist in the last 2 years – a total of 21 million – a slight rise on 2016 figures (48.2%).
The dire attendance figures come as income from the patient charge has hit over £780 million, up by two thirds on a decade ago. Polling for the BDA has revealed huge gaps in awareness among parents on eligibility for free dentistry, with 1 in 4 parents unaware that routine check-ups are free for children aged under 18.
Nearly 1 in 5 adult patients have delayed treatment for reasons of cost according to official statistics.
Dentists' leaders have said these figures reflect the continued failure by government to deliver a coherent oral health strategy and effective public engagement. The failure to adopt a model of dental care focused on prevention is being felt across the NHS, with tooth decay now the leading cause of hospital admissions for children, and an estimated 600,000 patients with dental problems presenting themselves at GP practices and over 130,000 at Accident and Emergency services each year.
The BDA advocates a shift to a genuinely preventive contract for NHS dentists in England, and a national programme to tackle decay modelled on successful initiatives in Scotland and Wales, and the anti-obesity campaign Change 4 Life.
Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen, Chair of General Dental Practice at the BDA, said:
"The fact nearly 5 million children are missing out on free dental care is nothing short of a national disgrace, but is the logical result of policies from successive governments.
"Tooth decay – a wholly preventable disease – remains the leading cause of hospital admissions for children, but instead of public information campaigns Westminster has offered radio silence.
"Government's chief concerns remain keeping patient numbers down and charge revenue rolling in. Far from delivering savings this approach is feeding a false economy, and piling huge pressures across the NHS.
"We see parents left in the dark, and key public health messages going undelivered. The onus is now on Ministers to stop just providing reasons to avoid regular check-ups, and to put prevention into practice."