Homeless dental scheme hailed a hit

A scheme providing dental care to people living on the streets of London looks set to go nationwide as England’s chief dental officer gave it the thumbs up.

The mobile service, which takes dentistry out and about to those living rough, is being trialled in the capital until May 2010 – and could be rolled out to other cities with a large homeless community if all goes well.

A new leaflet, launched today, aims to flag up the free mobile NHS dental services available to the homeless population, detailing where the services are available, listing local emergency dental services and offering tips for keeping teeth healthy.

And Dr Cockcroft was at the Whitechapel Mission in east London to see the innovative mobile dental service and to meet some of the people who benefit from it.

The project, which is being piloted in London, is linked to a mobile screening unit for tuberculosis that is currently being piloted in the capital, too – and health professionals hope that by joining forces, they will succeed in reaching out to those who often slip through the NHS system.

Speaking at the launch, project development officer, Rellet Bailey, said: ‘Getting dentistry is difficult for people who don’t have a settled home and this project is also an insight into how great the oral health need is.’

Contributing to the effort, volunteers at the Mission, in Whitechapel Road, east London, also hand out a 1p toothbrush with toothpaste daily to hundreds of homeless people visiting the day centre, which also provide meals, showers and clothing.

In total, they estimate that 300,000 toothbrushes are circulated every year at a small annual cost of £3,000.

CDO Barry Cockcroft said: ‘The NHS has made fantastic progress in improving access to dentistry but we need to do more to reach people who still have difficulty accessing services, whatever the reason. That’s why we’re working with existing services for homeless people to give them information on where they can go for treatment.

‘By making it easy for homeless people to find dental services especially for them we hope more people will get the dental treatment they need.’

The scheme is also designed to raise awareness of the implications of poor oral health and the options available for accessing NHS treatment among the homeless community and the professionals who work with them.

Tony Miller, director of Whitechapel Mission, said that the team ‘works with a very chaotic group of people who are excluded from our society, and there’s also the additional problems of alcohol and drugs.’

 ‘This service makes a big difference. There are 1,603 homeless people who would not have got access to TB screening. The next chapter is dental services…’

Ursula Bennett, head of dentistry at Tower Hamlets PCT, said that ‘really good commissioning and really good change is not always about spending lots of money, it’s about doing things differently.’

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of Crisis, the charity for homeless people, approved of the initiative, saying: ‘At Crisis, we are all too aware of the barriers homeless people face in accessing adequate dental care. Our own work providing dental care at Christmas means we know it is crucial to wider quality of life and wellbeing. We welcome this initiative and hope that it reaches as many homeless people as possible.’

It is anticipated that the scheme will provide information on the scope and scale of oral health problems among homeless people in London.

The pilot will run through to May 2010. Its impact will be evaluated via analysis of data on individuals attending for dental treatment at the community dental services.  

Interim results are expected in May 2010 and, if successful, will be adapted for other cities.

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