Fewer patients are receiving treatment in NHS dental practices, according to newly-released statistics.
Data shows dental teams carried out 38.4 million courses of NHS treatment in 2019-20.
But this marks a 3.36% drop compared to the previous year.
This is despite a jump in the number of dentists carrying out activity. Statistics show 24,684 dentists performed NHS activity in 2019-20, an increase of 139 when compared to the previous year.
Additionally, the data also exposes regional disparities. For example, 65 NHS clinical commissioning groups saw the number of dentists decrease over the past year.
And seven of these saw dentist numbers decline by 20% or more when compared to 2018-19.
Between 31 March 2019 and 31 March 2020, 58% of children had attended an NHS dentist in the previous 12 months. This figure stood at 49.6% for adults over the last two years.
The British Dental Association (BDA) has warned the latest statistics do not confront the ‘unprecedented fall’ in access in response to COVID-19.
‘This is data is from another era. Since March patient access has fallen off a cliff, and there is no certainty when or if it can be restored,’ said Dave Cottam, chair of the BDA’s general dental practice committee.
‘Access was in bad place pre-pandemic. We should lament how few children and adults made it to an NHS dentist last year. But the real question now is how we can even bring the service back to these levels.
‘We have practices struggling, and tens of millions of patients need somewhere to go. We need government to work with us to rebuild capacity.’
The association believes England has not yet turned the page on low levels of access. Its recent survey indicates the majority of practices are operating at less than a quarter of their former capacity after resumption of in-person care on 8 June.
And the Association of Dental Groups (ADA) has also spoken out in light of the data. It calls on easier routes into UK dentistry for overseas professionals.
Neil Carmichael, chair of the ADG, said: ‘The figures are just the latest proof that the number of dentists working in the NHS is plummeting in many of the areas where they are most needed.
‘In large parts of the country, dentists are deserting the NHS and it is the poorest patients who are often paying the price.
‘That’s why we urgently need to increase the pipeline of new dentists here in the UK while also making it easier for overseas professionals to enter UK dentistry.’
The newly-released statistics both include and exclude the unprecedented factor of COVID-19.
In terms of NHS dental activity in England, the report only details data from March 2019 to March 2020. But information on the number of patients seen by an NHS dentist is available up to 30 June 2020.
This means the statistics are unlikely to reflect the full impact of the lockdown, since dental practices shut their doors from the end of March until 8 June.
Given the precarious state of dentistry in the current climate, it’s unsurprising that many dentists fear access troubles will only be exacerbated from here on in.
Next year’s annual report will undoubtedly paint a clearer picture of the state of NHS dentistry in England.
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