NHS dentistry has failed to bounce back from Covid with less than half of adults in England having seen a dentist within the past two years, official figures show.
Only 43 per cent of over-18s were seen by a dentist in the 24 months to June this year, compared to more than half in the same period before the pandemic struck.
It means 3.8million fewer adults have had their teeth checked by the health service compared to pre-Covid levels, according to the NHS England figures.
NHS dental services for children have also suffered, with only 56 per cent seeing a dentist within the last year, 700,000 fewer than pre-pandemic.
Experts warned that the difficulties accessing NHS dentists could see people forgo vital treatment or resort to DIY dentistry — risking more costly care down the line.
Only 43 per cent of over-18s were seen by a dentist in the 24 months to June this year, compared to more than half in the same period before the pandemic struck
NHS dental services for children have also suffered, with only 56 per cent seeing a dentist within the last year, 700,000 fewer than pre-pandemic
Overall, 18.1million adults saw their dentist in the two years to June 2023, up from 16.4million in the 24 months to June 2022. But it is still well below the 21million seen in the two years to June 2020
It comes amid reports of Brits resorting to DIY dentistry, flying aboard for treatment, or going without care due to being unable to afford expensive private dental fees.
Those few dentists taking on new NHS patients have been overwhelmed, with some recording 100-strong queues and nearly 30,000 phone calls for just a few dozen places.
NHS dentistry recovered slightly from the pandemic, with 23.2 per cent more treatments last year compared to the one prior.
However, the number of patients actually treated has failed to return pre-Covid levels.
Overall, 18.1million adults saw their dentist in the two years to June 2023, up from 16.4million in the 24 months to June 2022. But it is still well below the 21million seen in the two years to June 2020.
How much does NHS dentistry cost?
There are 3 NHS charge bands:
Band 1: £23.80
Covers an examination, diagnosis and advice. If necessary, it also includes X-rays, a scale and polish, and planning for further treatment.
Band 2: £65.20
Covers all treatment included in Band 1, plus additional treatment, such as fillings, root canal treatment and removing teeth (extractions).
Band 3: £282.80
Covers all treatment included in Bands 1 and 2, plus more complex procedures, such as crowns, dentures and bridges.
For comparison, check-ups can cost between £20 and £120 at private dentists, according to Which?.
Dentures and bridges can also cost up to £2,520, the consumer watchdog says.
Before Covid, about 52 per cent of adults in England saw an NHS dentist at least once every two years.
This crashed to just 36 per cent during the height of Covid as the virus disrupted dental care across the country and practices shut their doors in lockdown.
Children, who get free dental care on the NHS, are also less likely to have seen a dentist.
Only 6.4million youngsters in England had a dental appointment in the last 12 months, a drop of nine per cent compared to 2019 — the last year of data before Covid hit.
An estimated 500 dentists have stopped providing NHS services compared to pre-pandemic.
Data also suggests that seeing an NHS dentist in England is harder in some places than others.
London recorded the lowest rates of NHS dental care for children in the country with less than half (49.5 per cent) seeing a dentist in the last year.
The South West and South East also saw a below average proportion of children accessing NHS dental care at 53.4 and 55.6 per cent respectively.
Youngsters in the North West had the highest access to NHS dental care with 61.5 per cent seeing a dentist in the past year.
For adults, the South East recorded the lowest proportion of NHS dental visits with only 38.1 per cent seeing a dentist in the last two years.
This was followed by London and South West, which had only 39.6 per cent of their adult population had seen an NHS dentist within the last 24 months.
The North East and Yorkshire region had the highest turnout, with 48.2 per cent of adults seeing an NHS dentist in this period, still less than half of the population.
Councillor David Fothergill, chair of the Local Government’s Association Wellbeing Board, said: ‘During this present cost of living crisis, a lack of NHS dentists could risk people choosing to forgo routine dental treatments or even resort to DIY dentistry, risking more costly emergency dental treatments being needed further down the line.’
Patient safety organisation Healthwatch England warned that the data suggests people in England are struggling to access the dental care they need.
This chart shows the number of dentists who carried out NHS activity each year, the figure dropped sharply during the Covid pandemic but has slightly recovered to just over 24,000 according to the latest data
Louise Ansari, the organisation’s chief executive, said: ‘NHS dentistry continues to be the second most common issue people report to Healthwatch, with many living in pain, while some turn to private care.
‘But private treatment is not an option for everyone, with reports suggesting people from the most deprived communities struggle the most to access dental care.
‘We’re concerned that some children have never been seen by a dentist in their life, storing up oral health and social problems for the future and potential removal of decayed teeth in hospital.’
Healthwatch England has called for the Government to publish an urgent dental recovery plan to address problems in the sector.
Dentists representative group, the British Dental Association (BDA), said the figures showed NHS dentistry was failing to bounce back from Covid.
BDA chair, Eddie Crouch, said the NHS contract, with pays dentists for work carried out in the health service, needed greater reform.
‘We’re seeing the limits on the recovery and this government’s ambition,’ he said.
‘Demoralised dentists are walking away from a broken system, while millions struggle to access the care they need.
‘NHS dentistry can come back from the brink, but only if Ministers turn the page.’
NHS dentistry has been in crisis for many years, with industry leaders saying the sector has been chronically underfunded, making it financially unviable to carry out treatments.
One of the key issues is that, under a previous controversial contract, NHS dentists were paid per job, not the amount of work required.
This effectively meant they got the same funding for a patient needing one filling as they would for a patient needing three, despite the latter taking much longer.
This, combined with the poorer pay compared to the lucrative private sector, long working hours and the stress of burnout, has led them to flee the health service, dental bodies have claimed.
While the dental contract was recently reformed as part of Government efforts to boost access to NHS dentistry, industry bodies say these have failed to go far enough.
Exacerbating the problem is that, as more dentists leave the NHS, those that remain become swamped by more and more patients, resulting in a domino effect.
England’s dental crisis has also led to a rise in ‘DIY dentistry’ which sees Brits use hardware tools, or kits bought online, to carry out dental treatment at home.
Some have described using pliers to pull out a blackened tooth or making homemade false teeth with resin and superglue.
One of those forced to take matters into their own hands was Antony Watson, of Bridlington in Yorkshire.
Mr Watson originally broke his tooth 20 years ago with dentists giving him a crown at the time.
But he damaged it a second time after biting into a cookie and said couldn’t book an NHS appointment for repairs because he isn’t registered with any clinic.
Mr Watson added that he ‘definitely couldn’t afford’ to pay for private treatment ‘on the spot’, forcing him to look elsewhere for a solution.
He eventually searched online for home delivery dentistry kits and chose a £3.99 kit.
Antony Watson from Bridlington had to order an at home dental repair kit to fix his broken tooth
Retired roofer, Alex Gray, from Lincolnshire, told BBC News that he had been forced to pull out six of his teeth on his own, after failing to find an NHS dentist
The kit contained a 20g bag of plastic beads, which are melted using boiling water then fashioned to fit the shape of the damaged tooth and superglued in place.
Dentistry experts and charities have warned such devices can be a choking hazard and also create ‘food traps’, leading to more damage in the future.
And Alex Gray, a retired roofer from Lincolnshire, said he had been forced to pull out six of his teeth on his own, after failing to find an NHS dentist.
He said that when a tooth ‘starts to fall out’, he takes painkillers and then ‘waits until it goes numb’, before using pliers to try and extract it.
Mr Gray said he has been unable to find an NHS dentist after moving to Lincolnshire six years ago.
Last year a joint-investigation between the BBC and BDA found a whopping 90 per cent of NHS dental practices were unable to offer any appointments to new adult patients.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak earlier this year revealed that British dentists could be forced to work for NHS for years after finishing their studies in one measure being considered to help tackle the crisis.
While losing teeth or gum disease may be the most obvious results of the dental crisis other, life threatening, health problems could also be missed.
Experts have highlighted that cases of mouth cancers, which are often spotted by dentists in the early stages by a routine check-up, could be going missed due to the appointments crisis.
Earlier this year a retired NHS worker who couldn’t get an NHS dental appointment revealed how his cancer was only spotted after he paid £50 to see a private dentist.