A lack of NHS dental appointments widens health inequalities warns Healthwatch

May 9, 2022

Healthwatch England warns that health inequalities are widening as people in every part of the country are struggling to pay for dental care. 

A representative poll of 2,026 adults based in England found nearly half (49%) of respondents felt NHS dental charges were unfair.  

The poll, which looked at people’s experiences of NHS dentistry, including costs associated with dental care, found the following:  

  • 41% of respondents said they found it difficult to book an NHS dental appointment, whilst one in five (20%)couldn’t access all the treatments they needed.  
  • One in four (24%) respondents said they had to pay privately to get all the treatment they required. 
  • One in six (17%) reported they felt pressured to pay privately when they booked their dental appointment. Similar numbers (17%) said their NHS dentist didn’t explain the costs before starting their treatment.  
  • More than one in 10 (12%) reported that their NHS dentist charged more for the treatments than the advertised NHS charges.  
  • Almost a third (29%) said lack of access to dental care led to more serious problems, making them feel anxious. Others said lack of timely dental care made it hard to eat or speak properly (16%); and made them avoid going out (14%).  

Dentist in scrubs, gloves and a mask stands over patient wearing goggles in the dentist chair ready to give treatment.The shortage of NHS appointments has hit people on low incomes hardest, meaning they are less likely to have dental treatment, compared with those on higher incomes. The poll suggests that people from social economic group (SEG) A are six times more likely to be able to pay for private dental care if they can’t find an NHS dentist to treat them than people from SEG E (48% and 8%, respectively).   

The new data also reveals a significant North-South divide when it comes to affordability of dental care. While one in five people (20%) living in the South said they can afford private dental care if they can’t find an NHS dentist, in the North, just seven per cent said they could afford private treatment. 

Overall, 38% of the respondents feel they are less likely to visit a dentist, despite clinical guidelines recommending regular dental check-ups to keep people’s mouths healthy. 

The findings come as more than 2,000 dentists quit the NHS last year, according to new data obtained by the Association of Dental Groups under freedom of information laws, suggesting a growing trend towards private provision. 

Healthwatch England has repeatedly raised concerns over the last two years as the twin crisis of access and affordability has continued to grow. Between October 2021 and March 2022, the Healthwatch network heard from 4,808 people about their experiences of dental care, many of whom were struggling to access timely care. 

Healthwatch is therefore making renewed calls on NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care to put a reformed dental contract in place before formal responsibility for dental services passes to the 42 new Integrated Care Systems in April 2023. 

Louise Ansari, national director at Healthwatch England said: “Access to NHS dentistry has been one of the most significant issues people have raised with us in the last two years. There is now a deepening crisis in dental care, leaving people struggling to get treatment or regular check-ups on the NHS.   

“The shortage of NHS appointments is creating a two-tier dental system, which widens inequalities and damages the health of the most disadvantaged communities. With millions of households bearing the brunt of the escalating living costs, private treatment is simply not an option and even NHS charges can be a challenge. This needs urgent attention if the Government is to achieve its levelling up plan and tackle health disparities.  

“We are once again calling on the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England for greater ambition and urgency from NHS dental reform plans to create a fair and inclusive dental service. We strongly recommend that a new dental contract is in place before Integrated Care Systems take on formal responsibility for dentistry from next April.”

About the poll

Yonder Data Solutions polled 2,026 adults (aged 18+) based in England in February 2022.

Key findings from national dental polling – Download (PDF 310KB)

What you’ve told us

Healthwatch Halton recently published a report based upon what 176 people told us about their experiences of trying to access local dental services. The report can be viewed here.

Since mid 2020 we have received a steady stream of calls and enquiries asking for details of local dental practices that were taking on new NHS patients. We heard about a range of issues facing people such as:

  • difficulties in finding up to date and accurate information from the NHS website ‘find a dentist’ page
  • waiting lists of up to two years to register with a dentist
  • being ‘removed’ as a patient from their regular dentist with little or no prior notice
  • children being unable to get NHS dental treatment
  • concerns over the Cheshire & Merseyside Dental Helpline.

Our report has been shared with NHS England, Healthwatch England and locally the Halton Health and Wellbeing Board. Healthwatch England have used the information supplied by us and other local Healthwatch to build up a national picture of access to dental services.

Halton residents who’ve been in touch with us said:

  • “They kicked both of us off the list because we’d not been for two years but for the last two years my wife has been in and out of hospital so now we’re looking for wheelchair accessible dentist but still not got one”
  • “Unable to find a dentist taking on new nhs patients since moving to the area last year”
  • “I was told that by every local dentist that they were not taking on NHS patients. It would appear that the only way I can get him an appointment is for me to pay privately.”
  • “I adopted a child and couldn’t register her anywhere. Ended up going through the national emergency system to get her an appointment as she was in pain.”

We want to hear from YOU 

We want to know more about the dental care you and your loved ones have received – both the good and the bad. Your continued feedback helps us to keep raising access to NHS dental treatment as an urgent priority with NHS England

Tell us your experience

You can also leave your comments on our online Feedback Centre, by calling 0300 777 6543, or by emailing feedback@healthwatchhalton.co.uk