Big drop in Lancashire NHS dental visits means many have not had check-ups in recommended time

Only around one in three adults in Lancashire has been seen by an NHS dentist in the past two years, latest figures reveal.

That is the maximum time that anybody should go without having a check-up, according to the health service's own guidance - while some patients will need far more regular examinations.

The statistic on visits to the county's NHS dental surgeries came from data produced by the House of Commons library - at the request of the Liberal Democrats - and does not include an equivalent figure for those seen privately.

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Based upon already published information, it shows that 36.8 percent of over-18s in the county council area had a dental appointment on the NHS in the 24 months to 30th June, 2022 - down from the 63.2 percent who did so in the two years to the end of June 2019. That puts Lancashire squarely mid-table - 78th - out of 155 local authority areas for which the information was available.

The number of people seeing an NHS dentist in Lancashire in the past two years has fallen sharply - from just under two thirds to just over a third
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The figures for children, based on a 12-month timeframe - reflecting the shorter maximum gap between check-ups for under-18s - also fell, but less sharply. They dropped from 52 percent in the year to June 2019 to 47.1 percent in the 12 months to June 2022.

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The standalone council areas of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen saw NHS dentistry attendance fall to similar levels.

In Blackpool, the proportion of the adult population seeing an NHS dental practitioner in the two years to the end of June 2022 was 35.1 percent, down from 52.2 percent in the 24 months to June 2019, while in Blackburn, the drop was to 37.9 percent from 67.9 percent. The current statistics for children in the two areas in the 12 months to 30th June, 2022, stand at 53.3 and 55.3 percent, respectively.

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The data comes with a cautionary caveat that the latest figures will have been heavily skewed by the shutdown of most NHS dental services at the onset of the pandemic. On 25th March that year, dental practices were ordered to close and defer all routine, non-urgent treatment. Some surgeries reopened, with precautions in place, from June.

However, the Lib Dems in Lancashire say that Covid complications mask an underlying problem in accessing NHS dentists in the county, which was becoming evident even before the virus struck.

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David Howarth, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Lancashire County Council, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that he was contacted by a resident in his Penwortham West division shortly prior to the dental deadlock caused by Covid - and they were being forced to travel more than 35 miles to Liverpool after drawing blank when it came to finding a dentist closer to home.

“To have to go [that far] just to get an appointment with an NHS dentist is an absolute nonsense. It’s a long way if you’re in pain - as it is even if it’s just for a check-up to discover that there is absolutely no treatment necessary.

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“There does seem to be a discrepancy when new practices are opening to offer cosmetic dentistry, but you can't get basic treatment.

“And this is supposed to be the NHS, but fees - even if you can find an NHS dentist - are not small.. If you go to see a doctor or [to the] hospital, you're not presented with a bill for £50 or more,” County Cllr Howarth said.

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Nationally, the Liberal Democrats last month called on the government to set out an NHS winter rescue plan with a focus on helping those in need of help for dental pain.

The party's group leader on Preston City Council told the LDRS: “NHS dentist appointments are becoming harder to get than ever and some practices are shutting their doors to NHS patients altogether - but the government is missing in action.

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“As the cost of living catastrophe continues to hit households hard, private dentistry is not a feasible alternative for the many people living in pain.

“It’s a national scandal that people in our community are desperately turning to dangerous DIY dentistry because our public health services have been run into the ground by this Conservative government,” Cllr Potter said.

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Responding to the issues raised by the Liberal Democrats, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care, said: “The Health and Social Care Secretary has set out her priorities of A, B, C and D, which includes dentists, and ‘Our Plan for Patients’ includes details of how we will enable more people to access NHS dental treatment.

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“We have already started changing the dental contract to incentivise dentists to do more NHS work and take on more difficult cases - and we are amending the law to make it easier for dentists not trained in England to work in the NHS.”

The latest statistics for England for August 2022 show an increase of 539 practising dentists compared to the year before. In addition, 26.4 million courses of treatment were delivered by NHS dentists between April 2021 and March 2022, more than double the 12 million reported in the previous 12 months when Covid restrictions were at their most stringent.

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HOW TO GET HELP

According to NHS England, there is no formal patient registration process for NHS dental practices – and all practices should prioritise patients based on clinical need and urgency.

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A spokesperson for the NHS in the North West said: “The NHS recently announced the first reforms to dentistry services since 2006, which will support practices to improve access including by giving high-performing practices the opportunity to increase their activity and treat more patients. Discussions around further changes that benefit patients and staff are ongoing.

“The Covid-19 pandemic, which has had a disproportionate impact on the North West region, has inevitably led to a disruption in routine dental care with NHS dentists having to focus on providing care for those with an urgent dental need.

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“NHS England have committed to ensure that urgent dental help is available for those who need it. Anyone who is in dental pain or in urgent need of support, help or advice, can access from their own dental practice in the usual way. If they don’t have a usual dentist and have an urgent need they can contact the dental helpline on 0300 1234 010 (standard local telephone charges apply).”

DENTAL DESERTS

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In a statement to the Commons late last month, Health and Social Care Secretary Therese Coffey said: "I am determined to address one of the most frustrating problems faced by many patients: getting an appointment to see their doctor, or getting to see a dentist at all.

“There are too many dental deserts. That is why we are setting out an ambition that everyone seeking NHS dental care can receive it when they need it. We have already started changing the dental contract to incentivise dentists to do more NHS work and take on more difficult cases. I pay tribute to my predecessors in this role for their success in beginning to tackle this long-standing issue.

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“We will also streamline routes into NHS dentistry for those trained overseas so that they can start treating patients more quickly. We will make it a contractual requirement for dentists to publish online whether they are taking on new NHS patients,” Ms. Coffey added.