Expenditure on treatment of oral diseases outstrips other conditions including cancer, heart disease, stroke and dementia – an estimated 0.5% of gross domestic product (GDP), an MP has warned.
Curative dental care also a significant economic burden across Europe with spending close to 9 billion euros. But most oral diseases in the UK are preventable, Labour MP for Plymouth Alison Seabeck has said.
Speaking in a debate on oral health she said the new dental contract with focus on prevention will not only benefit patients but ease the financial pressure on the state.
Ms Seabeck said: 'The simple fact is that the causes of most oral diseases in the UK are preventable through cost-effective measures that would ultimately save the taxpayer money. Brushing, flossing, using mouthwash
and chewing sugarfree gum – a much-maligned practice that is actually quite effective – could all be more effectively promoted to help to keep dental costs down in Britain, and the sharing of good practice should be
She continued: 'Expenditure on treatment for oral diseases often exceeds that for other diseases, including cancer, heart disease, stroke and dementia, yet the simple fact is that the causes of most oral diseases in the UK are preventable through cost-effective measures that would ultimately save the taxpayer money. Policy needs to be designed and implemented to improve research into oral health promotion.'
Around 30 million people see a dentist each year which is 100 times the 300,000 diagnosed with cancer each year, making it not surprising it costs more to treat teeth than cancer.
Health minister Daniel Poulter hopes the new NHS dental contract and the focus on preventative care will identify cancers and those at risk of developing them much earlier.
He said the need to improve dental health was often underestimated, and not discussed enough in the context of the health service.
Dr Poulter said: 'The new dental contract makes it easier to identify key prevention issues. It focuses on the desirability of spotting early symptoms of ill health –in this instance, oral ill health – rather than spotting them much too late, when a patient's cancer is already well advanced.
'I am optimistic about the possibility that the new dental contract and that important focus in preventive care will enable us to identify cancers, and those who are at risk of developing them, much earlier, rather than waiting to treat people later when they are very unwell. The health service in general needs to be geared up in order to do that better, particularly in the context of oral health.'
In 1973, the average 12 year old in England and Wales had five decayed, missing or filled teeth, but by 2003 the UK average was 0.7 fillings, he told MPs.
'So, we have made great strides in the past 30 or 40 years. That improvement was partially due to the introduction of fluoride toothpaste in the 1970s.'
In 1968, the first adult dental health survey found that 37% of the adult population of England and Wales had no remaining natural teeth, but the 2009 survey found that the proportion had dropped to 6%.
Dr Poulter said it was proof dental health was taken seriously in the country and must continue to be.
He added: 'The fundamental focus is on moving away from a reactive service to a preventive care service. That will both improve oral health by reducing the incidence of cancer, and give children the best start in life by engendering good dental health habits through the involvement of hygienists and other practitioners. Our aim is to move dental care on to a more stable footing. This Government are committed to continuing the progress that consecutive Governments have made in widening patients' access to dental services, particularly those patients who have had difficulty accessing such services in the past.'
Ms Seabeck, who secured the debate, said oral health was given too little attention, both in terms of what practitioners can bring to improving a population's general health, as well as disease prevention.
She said dentists were 'undervalued in terms of what they can bring to the table to help to improve our nation's health'.
Ms Seabeck said while the new contract recognised the importance of prevention , she expressed concern 'this will be challenging for some in the profession to implement, as they will have to change the way in which they work, but most dentists will learn to accept that prevention should be a priority.'
By Anika Bourley, parliamentary correspondent