At Somerset Council’s Adults and Health Scrutiny Committee meeting on October 5, 2023, the community pleaded for action to address the area’s shortage of NHS dentists.
"With the cost of living crisis, many people who have severe dental problems are pulling their own teeth out because they cannot afford to visit a non-NHS private dentist. Dental examinations can reveal serious health conditions, such as oral cancer and heart disease, and are necessary for women who are pregnant. Consequently, severe health problems are not being spotted early enough.
"Children are increasingly being admitted as emergency patients. Their teeth are bad because parents or caregivers are unable to afford private dentistry.
"This has led to an even greater strain on our already overloaded NHS. For people who are not registered as NHS patients, how long will it be before they can register as a new NHS patient in Somerset?"
According to Somerset Live, Sukeina Kassam, NHS Somerset's deputy director of primary care, informed the committee that her team will be investigating “contractual compliance” to ensure that practices carry out NHS work.
Sukeina said, “The way patients engage with dentistry has evolved. Patients no longer stay with one dentist for life; instead, they typically visit a dentist for the duration of their treatment. We understand that finding a dentist can be challenging, and dental surgeries may not always have the capacity to accept new NHS patients.
"In such cases, you might need to join a waiting list, seek out a different dentist currently accepting new NHS patients, or consider private dental care. We are actively collaborating with local providers to address the shortage of NHS dental services in the region. Our efforts include implementing initiatives to increase the availability of dental appointments and launching preventive care programs to support patients in maintaining their oral health.
"We are also exploring opportunities to commission additional NHS services from dental practices that have the capacity to provide them. We are actively addressing these challenges to improve access to dental care for our community."
The access issues being experienced in Somerset are being widely reflected nationally, Sukeina explained. The Health and Social Care Committee released its report into NHS dentistry in July. It described the evidence of pain and distress due to being unable to see an NHS dentist as “totally unacceptable in the 21st century”. The authors called for the government to set out plans to reform the service.
Commenting on the expected changes, Sukeina said, "These changes, coupled with further adjustments to the national dental contract, are aimed at enhancing patient access to dental care and making NHS dentistry a more attractive option for dental professionals. While we await the specifics of these developments, we remain optimistic that they will bring positive improvements to the field of dentistry."
Gill Slocombe, a councillor and head of the committee, criticised the delays to the announcement of reforms. She said, "We've been waiting and waiting. Dentistry is very, very high on our agenda. It's a major issue which keeps coming back and coming back, and we always seem to be waiting. I'm sorry, but it just seems to be frustrating for us."