UK dentistry in crisis

By Sara Cetinja

On February 7, the Government issued a policy statement outlining the dentistry recovery plan for 2024, with the primary aim of providing dental treatment in under-served areas, otherwise known as ‘dental deserts’.

Dental deserts, which have become a rising issue since the COVID-19 pandemic, are areas where people are unable to access dental care. They include Norfolk, Devon and Cornwall, Cumbria, and large parts of Wales. 

Dental deserts are created by a variety of factors, rather than a single cause. The number of dentists has dropped to its lowest point in a decade, with about 2,000 abandoning the profession since the pandemic began, and more than half reducing their commitment to the NHS. Furthermore, according to the British Dental Association (BDA), about 90% of UK dentists do not accept new patients and require parents to register as private patients before their child can be treated. 

The number of dentists has dropped to its lowers point in a decade, with about 2,000 abandoning the profession since the pandemic began

In areas where little or no dental treatment is available, A&E and GP practices are inundated with patients in urgent need of dental care, which is not always provided efficiently due to the lack of qualified staff. Another effect is the rise of ‘DIY dentistry’, in which people try to treat themselves by pulling out their own teeth, filling their cavities with Amazon-bought  compounds, or consuming excessive doses of painkillers.  

The recent statistics highlight the importance of the Government’s recovery plan. In 2022, 30,000 children and more than 70,000 adults were admitted to A&E with tooth decay. 

As part of the policy plan, in 2024, they promised to supply the first cohort of 240 dentists with ‘golden hellos’ worth £20 000 to relocate to dental deserts where no new patients are currently being admitted. Dentists will also get paid £15 or £50 for every new patient, depending on the type of treatment. Additionally, they plan to develop a dental van service for the most rural areas, with the first vans set to begin operating later this year. Overall, the Conservative policy package, worth approximately $200 million, promises to provide 1.5 million additional treatments to patients in the 12 months that follow.

In 2022, 30,000 children and more than 70,000 adults were admitted to A&E with tooth decay

Nevertheless, the new policies have received some criticism. Shawn Charlwood, chairman of the BDA, argues that these policies are insufficient to bring long-term benefits, saying, “this recovery plan is not worthy of the title. It won’t halt the exodus from the workforce or offer hope to millions struggling to access care.”

When comparing current Government policies with Labour Party plans, it is difficult to anticipate which ones will ultimately improve UK dentistry. Although the Conservative Government has been criticised for failing to curb “the exodus from the workforce,” it does address this issue as part of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, the results of which are expected by the end of this decade. 

Both parties have committed to the ‘golden hellos’, however while Labour pledges 700,000 emergency treatments every year, Conservatives claim that their measures will result in 1.5 million appointments over the following year. Furthermore, when comparing policy expenses, the Labour Party estimated that their policy approach would cost approximately £111mn, much less than the Conservative Party’s £200mn. 

One Labour policy proposal may address a deeper systemic issue in dentistry: the reform of the dental contract. Because of its problematic nature, the dental contract system overburdens dentists with administrative work and results in excessive fees being charged to patients. This prevents dentists from delivering more treatments and limits the number of people who can afford them. The specifics of the dental contract reform are unknown. Current Conservative plans appear to address the most pressing issues affecting UK dentistry and promise beneficial results.  

Image: oswaldoruiz via Pixabay

One thought on “UK dentistry in crisis

  • You have the power to change how NHS dentistry works
    Your MP represents your views in parliament. If you have struggled to access an NHS dentist and you are unhappy about it, then write to your MP and tell them so they can make a change.
    Writing to your MP is easier than than you think – just as easy as filling out a form. All you need to know is your postcode.
    We have some suggestions for what you could say:
    Tell them about the problems you have experienced trying to access an NHS dentist
    Tell them you will be voting for a party that promises to improve access to good quality and affordable NHS dentistry
    Ask them to publish some detail about their party’s policy on NHS dentistry
    Ask them why practices are closing and cannot recruit NHS dentists or see more patients where you live
    Ask them why we don’t currently have all of our water supply fluoridated, when water fluoridation is a proven effective, cheap and safe way to reduce dental decay for everyone
    Ask them why if cigarette packets have to warn about cancer and gum disease, that sugary food and drink do not have to warn about tooth decay
    Ask them why its cheaper to buy unhealthy and sugary edible food-like substances than it is to buy nutritious fruit and vegetables
    Tell them what you want from NHS dentistry
    WriteToThem – Write to your MP using


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