Research, carried out by Healthwatch England, shows that many NHS dental practices are operating at capacity – with just one in five accepting new patients in some areas.
A number of concerns have been highlighted after receiving reports from areas including Kirklees, Bolton and Leicester:
- People are having to travel further afield to find an NHS dentist, with one surgery near Plymouth, Devon, saying it was accepting new NHS patients who were calling for appointments from 40 miles away in mid-Cornwall
- People are being struck off registers for missing check-ups, even when there are extenuating circumstances, including one incident of a patient having to miss an appointment to care for her husband whilst he received treatment for cancer
- Emerging concerns that dentists are performing more basic treatments on the NHS like tooth extractions rather than fillings, and in some cases forcing patients to have private appointments with a dental hygienist in order to stay on their books.
The most common problem reported by the study was that of finding a surgery able to take on new NHS patients.
Anna Bradley, chair of Healthwatch England, said: ‘We hear a lot in the news about people struggling to access their GPs but it would seem getting an appointment with an NHS dentist is even more frustrating.
‘Patients are constantly being fed confusing and inaccurate information about who is and isn’t currently offering NHS treatment, and are feeling like they have to opt for costly private treatments such as hygienist appointments so that they don’t get struck off the books.
‘It’s simply not acceptable and such basic consumer concerns must be addressed when the dentist contract comes up for renewal.’
According to the NHS Choices website, just under half of the 8,000 dentist surgeries in the country are able to take on new NHS patients, conflicting with Healthwatch England’s spot check study of 300 surgeries, which showed numbers are as low as one in five, with Yorkshire and Humberside the worst affected regions.
Dr Barry Cockcroft, NHS England's chief dental officer, said: 'Our figures tell us that 93% of people who tried to get an NHS dental appointment in the past two years were successful.
'Of the 6.5% who tried to get an NHS dental appointment at a practice that they had never attended before, 76% were successful.
'Practices cannot deregister patients.
'Anyone told this should use the practice's complaint system.'
The research also found that many surgeries are failing to update their details on the NHS Choices website.
A spokesman from NHS Choices said: ‘NHS Choices (www.nhs.uk) provides every NHS dentist with the opportunity to tell local people about their services, including an indication of whether they are currently accepting NHS patients for new courses of treatment.
‘Whenever we hear from the public or bodies such as Healthwatch England that information is not up-to-date for a particular practice, we contact the practice.
‘This is our opportunity to help and encourage them to provide accurate information.’
Dr Barry Cockcroft continued: 'Dental practices update their own information on the NHS Choices website.
'It can be difficult for practices to do this as the capacity to see new patients might vary from day to day, especially for small practices.
'We will be looking, with them, at ways that this process can be improved.'