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NHS: Dental Care

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many dentists are now providing NHS dental care under the general dental services contract introduced in 2006; and what is the annual cost of the care provided and the amount generated in patient charge revenues towards funding this care.

My Lords, the latest figures published by the NHS information centre show that 22,799 dentists provided NHS primary dental care in 2010-11. The net allocation for primary dental care in 2010-11, the latest year for which figures are available, was £2,200 million. Patient charge revenue for 2010-11 was £617 million.

It is good to have the updated figures, but is the Minister aware that the two major concerns for patients now are transparency and availability? Availability is something that we look to the health service to provide. However, the transparency issue has become very important, not only to patients but to other dentists, who are very dissatisfied that dentists are able to put up notices saying, “National Health Service treatment available”, yet after a patient goes to them it emerges that the treatment is very limited. Does the Minister not think that, in the interests of warning the consumer, the present NHS fee charts should show that conditions may apply?

My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend about the importance of transparency of information for NHS patients. NHS Choices, which is the department’s public-facing website, already displays a lot of information about fees, the treatment that should be received and how to make a complaint about NHS dentistry, but more work is being done in this area to improve information on patients’ ratings of different practices, and we are updating the patient leaflet as well. What a dentist should not do is mislead a patient or induce a patient to access the surgery and then not provide the treatment that the patient thought they were going to get. If they cannot provide NHS treatment for whatever reason, they should point the patient in the direction of a practice that can, or else refer him or her to the primary care trust helpline.

My Lords, I refer the House to my health interests in the register. Following on from the noble Baroness’s Question, can the Minister refer specifically to the OFT report, which showed that thousands of patients, after being told by their dentist that they could not have a certain treatment on the NHS, were persuaded to go private? That is and was inaccurate information. Are the Government going to take action in this area?

My Lords, the OFT report on the dental market was published last month and we very much welcome that study. We note that it found that the vast majority of patients were happy with their dental treatment and that the vast majority of dentists behave ethically. There should be, and are, clear penalties for the small minority who mislead patients, but the noble Lord is right to draw attention to that aspect of the OFT report. It is an area that we are taking extremely seriously and we are looking at what more we can do.

In view of the Minister’s comments on patient charge revenues and the fact that NHS dentists are not allowed to do competitive pricing, has he any idea why the recent OFT report to which he has just referred revealed that 1% of regular NHS patients chose their dentist because, they said, the practice had competitive prices? Why do his colleagues at the department still refer to the NHS as being free at the point of delivery?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. Treatment provided on the NHS carries only one pricing tariff, which cannot be varied. The OFT report found that only 1% of NHS patients and 2% of private patients chose a dentist on the basis of price. I stand to be corrected, but I do not believe that it made any suggestion that NHS charges were uncompetitive; they are, and always have been, a subsidised contribution to NHS costs—they are not a market price. Therefore, I imagine that the OFT report reflected the fact that patients were comparing private charges with NHS charges. Of course, the NHS is in general free at the point of use, but my noble friend is right. It is important that we are clear that some charges exist, as they have in dentistry for 60 years.

My Lords, some may avoid the dentist because they cannot find one, others for fear of high costs, and others just for fear. Have the Government carried out any work to determine what proportion of the population does not attend a dentist, and the reason why?

I am pleased to tell my noble friend that since May 2010 over 1.1 million more patients have been seen by an NHS dentist, which is very good news. Nevertheless, we are clear that access is a priority—56.6% of the population has seen an NHS dentist within the past two years. We wish to design the new dental contract, which is currently being piloted, in a way that encourages access.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that last month he told the House that he was giving attention to the possibility of access online to dental prices. Has he anything to report since he said that?

My Lords, I referred earlier to NHS Choices, the website that patients and the public can access. It contains the most up-to-date information on dental treatment costs and entitlements. The dental section of NHS Choices was updated at the end of February following suggestions and comments submitted by the public through the website itself and these changes include new pages that clearly explain dental charges and exemptions and inform patients how to get help with dental costs.

My Lords, am I right in my understanding that children and young people get all NHS dental treatment free of charge? If so, what improvements have there been in dental health among this group?

The noble Countess is quite right. The oral health of children, particularly those from disadvantaged families, is one of the biggest challenges we have and one of the main priorities in this policy area. While two-thirds of five year-olds are now caries free, the remaining one-third have an average of 3.45 decayed, missing or filled teeth. We are piloting new ways of supporting dentists to identify children at risk of tooth decay to get them the care and preventive advice they need, including engagement through schools, the wider community and local authorities.