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Rise in ‘Dental deserts’

The British Dental Association has responded to new analysis commissioned by the Liberal Democrats, warning that the picture is far worse owing to the paucity of official data. The Commons Library research shows how the rise in “dental deserts” has left people struggling to get an appointment, with some areas now having over 3,000 people for every NHS dentist. 65 of 104 local areas in England have seen the number of people per dentist rise since 2019, the figures show.

However, the professional body stresses that official data is a work of fiction, given the government has never attempted to collect data on how much NHS work these dentists perform. Most dentists combine NHS and private work, and officials have no estimate of the whole time equivalent NHS workforce. The BDA’s analysis of official data shows hundreds of dentists are doing the equivalent of a single NHS check-up a year.

The number of dentists delivering a single unit of dental activity (UDA) in 2021/22 was over 500. The Prime Minister has been criticised for repeatedly claiming there are 500 ‘new’ dentists practicing in the NHS as a result of government reforms. The BDA says this data underlines the emptiness of these claims. Recent polls by the professional body indicate over half of dentists in England (50.3%) report having reduced their NHS commitment since the start of the pandemic – by 27% on average. This movement is not tracked in official workforce data, which counts heads not commitment, and where dentists doing one NHS check-up a year carry the same weight as an NHS full timer. There are fewer dentists performing higher volumes of NHS dentistry in 2021/22 than in 2019/20, with the proportion performing over 5000 UDAs falling by more than half.

Recent analysis undertaken by the BDA indicates unmet need for dentistry in 2022 stood at over 11 million people, or almost one in four of England’s adult population. The professional body warned the Health and Social Care Committee last month that government was just “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the service slowly slips into the sea”.

British Dental Association Chair Eddie Crouch said:

“Dental deserts are on the rise, but the true scale of the exodus from the NHS is going untracked in official data.

“The Prime Minister keeps boasting of 500 ‘new’ dentists in the NHS. The reality is we have 500 doing a single check-up a year.

“We need a reality check from government, together with honesty, ambition and investment.”

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