Lack of access to NHS dentists in England are being linked to a rise in patients admitted to hospital with dental abscesses.
The number of hospital admissions for abscesses has nearly doubled in eight years to just less than 1,500 a year.
Bristol University researchers said the increase represented a ‘major public health problem’ and seemed to be caused by changes to the dental contract.
The government said recent reforms were aimed at remedying the situation.
The 1990 contract led to many dentists increasing the amount of private work they did in a row over pay.
It meant an increasing number of people struggled to get on to dentists’ lists – from 1994 to 2004 those registered fell from 23m to 17m.
The team analysed official NHS data and found that there were 750 admissions in 1998-9, but by 2005-6 that had risen to 1,431, the British Medical Journal reported.
The team dismissed the suggestion that poorer oral health was to blame, pointing out that the average age of the patients, at 32, was too young to support that theory.
Instead, researchers said changes to the dental system could be the cause, as access to dental care was an issue even before the most recent change to dental working practices in 2006.
Lead researcher Steven Thomas, a surgeon who treats dental abscesses, said the rise in admissions was a ‘major public health problem’.
‘Most serious dental infections are preventable with regular dental care. Indeed, this is the rationale for regular dental check-ups.
‘Changes in service provision could, therefore, have resulted in reduced provision of routine dental care and access to emergency dental care.
‘These changes might explain the rise in surgical admissions for dental abscess.’
Professor Damien Walmsley, scientific adviser to the British Dental Association (BDA), said: ‘These findings are extremely concerning.’