The latest report by Which? on their Clean Up Dental Costs campaign has found that three in ten NHS practices do not accept new patients, despite claiming that they do, and those that do accept new patients have lengthy waits for an appointment.
Undercover researchers, on behalf of Which?, called 500 dental surgeries advertising on the Government’s official website, NHS Choices, as accepting new NHS patients to see if they could book an appointment.
Repeating their research at the beginning of the new financial year, they found that more practices were refusing to take on new NHS patients than had been the case when they ran their initial research several months ago.
Nearly four in ten (37%) of surgeries wouldn’t offer an NHS appointment, and over a third (36%) couldn’t arrange an appointment within a fortnight.
Following on from these latest results, Which? has called on the Competition and Markets Authority to step in and ensure the dental sector complies with existing rules and improves the way treatment options, prices and appointment availability are communicated to patients.
Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd, said: “We found it’s frustratingly difficult to get an NHS appointment with a dentist as information about availability doesn’t reflect reality. This is a kick in the teeth for patients and yet more evidence of poor communication from the dental sector.
“We want the Competition and Markets Authority to step in and ensure that dentists put the existing rules into practice so that people can easily find out where they can get NHS dentistry.”
In a separate survey, they found that 39% of people would use NHS Choices to find a new dentist, highlighting how important it is to keep this website updated frequently. 45% of patients who tried to book an appointment in the last year described it as “difficult” while one in five (19%) went without dental treatment because they couldn’t find an NHS dentist.
The British Dental Association responded to the survey by reiterating its long calls for the comprehensively flawed payments system at the heart of NHS dentistry to be reformed. They believe that the current UDA system has fuelled longer waiting lists for NHS patients.
Chair Mick Armstrong said: “The Government remains committed to a byzantine system that has failed both dentists and their patients. These targets might suit a Whitehall spreadsheet but do not reflect the reality of millions of people receiving and seeking NHS treatment.
“From day one these arbitrary targets have proved a real obstacle for new NHS patients. Dentists often have more patients lining up than they have UDA’s, but the UDA must come first. Successive Governments appear to have been more attached to acronyms than to patients seeking care.
“Many would like to see more patients, but this is impossible within rigid contracts… Money being clawed back from dentistry is not being reinvested in dentistry. We have a shrinking budget that only covers 56% of the population. For far too long oral health has been left out of the health debate, and this new evidence provides fresh impetus for Government to reassess its agenda.
“Two watered-down versions of the UDA are now going into trials as a possible basis for a new dental contract. We want to see prevention at the heart of dentistry. We want real and agreed clarity for both patients and practitioners on what the NHS will cover, and at what cost. None of that will be possible until the UDA is consigned to the dustbin of history.”
Dental Protection have also responded to the Which? survey. Director Kevin Lewis siad: "It is deeply disappointing to see public confidence in their dentists being undermined yet again. The Which? report has revealed a lack of understanding of the current NHS system in England and Wales. Dental practoces have their services commissioned by the NHS under contracts which effectively cap the total number of courses of treatment that can be provided and paid for in any financial year.
"In March, when this study was carried out, many practices will already have reached that cap and in many of these cases the delay of more than two weeks may well reflect the start of the following financial year and the availability of funding. Dentists are effectively being criticised for not being prepared to provide dental treatment at their own expense, for which the NHS will not reimburse them.
"Even where remaining contract funding exists, dental practices, just like GP medical practices and hospitals, have a finite capacity for the number of patients that can be seen and treated. Telling patients at the time of their initial contact what the likely delay is before an appointment can be offered, is not “luring patients in” and “deceiving patients”, but providing patients with information that can inform their choice of which practice to attend.
"As more dental practices become weary of the criticism of their motives, and turn instead to the private sector, waiting lists for NHS dental treatment in other local practices will simply become longer. The regional picture revealed by Which? actually supports the contention that NHS availability is at its worst in areas where more dentists are known to have left the NHS.
“Nobody would support cases where patients are being deliberately misled, but it is not acceptable to assume that this must be the case, simply because a dental practice – perhaps through the quality and popularity of the service it provides – finds that the demand for its services exceeds its capacity to supply them.”