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NHS Dentistry

Volume 836: debated on Monday 19 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the availability of NHS dentistry.

My Lords, since the pandemic this Government have taken decisive action to recover services. There are signs of recovery, with the amount of activity delivered and the number of patients seen increasing, but there is more to do. Our recently published plan to recover and reform NHS dentistry will make dental services faster, simpler and fairer for patients and will fund around 2.5 million additional appointments and more than 1.5 million additional courses of dental treatment.

My Lords, I welcome the recent Statement but, with 80% of NHS dentists not accepting new patients and with 190 hospital operations every day removing rotten teeth from children, clearly a fresh initiative was needed. However, the dysfunctional, discredited 2006 dental contract, which is driving NHS dentists out of the business, and which was described by the Select Committee in another place as not fit for purpose, remains in place. When will it be reformed? Given that everyone has a right to register with a GP and if they cannot find one the ICB has to find one, why is there not an equivalent right to register with a dentist if dentistry is an integral part of the NHS?

I thank my noble friend for raising this and declare my interest as my wife is a dentist, although she is not currently practising. It is accepted that we have made sensible improvements to the dental contract, but a fundamental longer-term overhaul is needed. In terms of the ability to get registered with a dentist, that is what the mobile trucks are all about. We realise that in certain areas it is difficult to get that registration. The idea is for mobile trucks to go into a neighbourhood where there is a particular shortage to resolve the problem.

My Lords, while working at No. 10 in the early noughties, I was involved in a strategic review of the NHS and was shocked, at the time, to discover how poor the long-term workforce capacity planning was. The total number of dentists currently working in NHS England—around 25,000—has not changed by more than tens or hundreds over the last five years. In that period, more dentists have left than joined. At the same time, fewer than 1,000 dental students have been enrolled each year. Precisely how many dentists do we need to bring NHS capacity in line with demand? In what year, again precisely, will that point be reached?

The noble Lord is correct in talking about the supply challenges. That is what the long-term workforce plan is all about, and why we are committing to a 40% increase in training places by 2030. The other issue that he rightly raises is the balance between the cost-effectiveness of providing private versus national health dentistry. The problem is that it is often seen as more lucrative for a dentist to go down the private sector route. That is why we are trying to rebalance that and have introduced an increase in the minimum charge to £28 for a unit of dental activity, and £50 for a new patient, to try to bring services back more in favour of the NHS.

My Lords, I declare my interests as president of the British Fluoridation Society. The Academy of Medical Sciences reported very recently that nearly a quarter of five year-olds have tooth decay. Unless we deal with this there will be many more queues and great difficulties with access. The Minister will know that shortly there will be a consultation in the north-east to introduce fluoride. Surely the current situation demands that we extend this throughout the country.

Yes, the noble Lord is correct that there is very good evidence of the effectiveness of water fluoridation, and the report as recently as 2022 showed there are no side-effects. The north-east will increase the number of recipients by about 1.6 million people, and there is a process that that needs to go through but I totally agree that we should expand it as far as we can.

My Lords, further to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, I point out that we have very good data on the number of dentists engaged in NHS activity. It shows a pattern of falling numbers—down to 24,151 in the last financial year. Does the Minister agree that it is fair for us to judge the success or failure of the Government’s new plan on whether that number increases? Does he have a target for where the Government intend it to reach?

The absolute measure that everyone cares about is output—the number of treatments—and this plan is all about increasing the number of appointments by 2.5 million. In the last year alone, we increased the number of treatments from 26 million to 33 million. There is more to do, granted, but the real measure of success is how many treatments we get done, which is a function not just of the number of dentists but of their productivity, and of the number of them we can persuade to provide NHS rather than private sector services.

Can the Minister confirm that it is nearly 13 years since the then Secretary of State, and his noble friend Lord Howe, initiated negotiations for a new dental contract? We still need that contract, because it would shift towards paying dentists for outcomes for their patients rather than for units of dental activity. It is when we have a shortage of dentists that we need to shift to outcomes and preventive work, to improve the balance of work that dentists must do and reduce demands on the total dental workforce.

Yes, it is all about outcomes and output. As I mentioned, there have been sensible moves recently in terms of the contract—the £50 for new patients; increasing minimum levels; and ensuring that dentists get more payment for doing, for example, three fillings versus one. I also agree that some fundamental work needs to be done in this space.

My Lords, the Minister has previously suggested that the 15 mobile dental vans would be able to address emergency situations as well as scheduled appointments. How will this work in practice, particularly in view of the size of the areas each van will cover? How will the Government meet the immediate need for thousands more appointments for emergency dental treatment?

There will be a schedule of when the mobile vehicles will visit each area, with the ability to pre-book so, if someone calls up with an issue, they will know that a truck will come to their area in a week or two’s time. That is the idea, or people can queue to receive those services as well. I hope this will be successful. It has worked quite well in some areas already. The case will prove itself and the 14 will be just the start. We can do much more from that, because we all agree that we need to expand supply.

Given that over 8,800 new oral cancers were diagnosed last year, and a fifth of those were in people under the age of 65, do the Government recognise that it is a false economy not to increase dentistry provision, dental hygienist screening for oral cancers and advice on prevention, such as by cutting down on smoking and so on? The cost of treating this, and of early morbidity to the country, is huge.

Yes, absolutely. That goes back to my noble friend’s point about outcomes. I know that a lot of places, if they are fortunate enough to have an NHS dentist, give you check-ups every six months as a matter of course. In fact, NICE says that if you are in good oral health you will need that only every 24 months, with the idea being that you can create more space for other people to come in, because prevention and screening are vital in all this as well.

My Lords, I live in Cornwall, where there are now very few NHS dentists and many people are resorting to do-it-yourself. What plan does the Department of Health have to ensure that all in Cornwall have access to a dentist as and when needed? A kit is available from the high street for less than £10, but this does not buy any expertise or guarantee of success.

The noble Baroness is quite correct. Cornwall is one of the areas where we piloted the mobile services. It is probably not the number one area, but it is fair to say that it is one of the main areas where we are putting in more resources for precisely that reason.

My Lords, I shall switch sides of the country. The campaign group Toothless in England was founded in Suffolk and is calling for contracts for NHS dentists to cover the real costs. It says that this is the only way to solve the drought of dentists in places such as Waveney Valley, where one in three people has been unable to secure an appointment over two years.

These plans were welcomed by Toothless in England, which was good to see, as well as by Healthwatch. I know personally that making it economic for dentists to work in the NHS rather than in the private sector, or getting that balance right, is fundamental. The changes are a good first step towards that but more probably needs to be done.