Mixed messages as access figures released

Dental access figures out this week show that the number of patients visiting NHS dentists in England has still not recovered to pre-2006 contract levels.

In April 2006, 55.8% of the English population was seen on the NHS in the previous 24 months.

Following the introduction of new terms of service on 1 April, this fell to a low of 52.7% in June 2008, from which point it was thought to be recovering.

However, the adjusted figures to September 2009 released yesterday (Thursday) show that it is struggling to reach pre-contract levels.

The figure of 54.2% for September 2009 has been reduced by 0.3 million in anticipation of an adjustment downwards when further figures are released in February 2010.

Derek Watson, of the Dental Practitioners Association, said: ‘The Department of Health said that the very few dentists resigned in April 2006 represented very little capacity. They are missing the point. The new contract was supposed to correct supply problems and it has had the opposite effect. Fewer patients are now seeing NHS dentists as a result of the NHS contract, despite the fact the Department has been spraying the money hose around for two years in an attempt to disguise their bungling antics.’

Ashleye Gunn, head of social policy at consumer group Which?, was also critical, saying: ‘It’s encouraging to see an increase in the number people visiting NHS dentists. However, change isn’t happening fast enough. Our research shows that 7.5 million people in England either cannot find an NHS dentist or have stopped trying. If you’ve had problems in the past, you shouldn’t give up.’

But chief dental officer, Barry Cockcroft, remained positive over the release of these latest figures.

He said: ‘We have invested over £2 billion in NHS dentistry resulting in more NHS dental practices expanding and opening all the time. The tide is turning and access to NHS dentistry has been increasing steadily for over a year with over 930,000 more people seeing an NHS dentist in the last five quarters.

‘Dentists working in the NHS treat around 250,000 patients every working day and our aim is to ensure that everyone who wants to see an NHS dentist can by March 2011.’

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