Major changes to the NHS dental contract will be piloted from the autumn, the government has confirmed, as new figures showed the amount of dentistry undertaken by the NHS has risen.
The Department of Health has invited formal expressions of interest from dentists and PCTs keen to test recommendations contained in last year’s Steele Review.
Barry Cockcroft, chief dental officer for England, said he wanted to reassure practitioners that the government was ‘committed’ to piloting Professor Jimmy Steele’s proposed reforms – including his call to link dentists’ income to the number of NHS patients on their books as well as their levels of activity.
Piloting of the new reforms will be carried out in two waves, with minor changes to patient assessments and to the way information technology is used being tested as part of an initial wave within the next few weeks.
Broader, ‘full-system’ pilots, involving contracts based on a blend of access, quality and activity indicators, are expected to ‘go live’ by September under a second wave of trials that could run for up to two years.
Dr Cockcroft said: ‘We are inviting expressions of interest from PCTs and dentists to get full system pilots running by the autumn. But we also want to learn from innovation going on now and very small pilots will start sooner. We need to let these things run for a certain length of time and we need to test these things in a range of situations. But we want to reassure people we are committed to doing this and we want to get on with it.
‘Hopefully it will improve outcomes for patients and we are doing it against a better background of improving access and better clinical engagement with the British Dental Association.’
Dr Cockcroft said he did not believe any changes made to the 2006 reforms would require new legislation, thanks to the flexibility of the existing contractual framework. But he added: ‘If we need to change legislation we can do.’
The news follows the release of new DoH figures that showed 88.3 million UDAs were commissioned by PCTs in England in the three months to the end of December 2009 – up 1.4 million (1.6%) from the previous quarter.
Health minister Ann Keen said: ‘Access to NHS dentistry is now growing – in the last five quarters the number of people seeing an NHS dentist rose by 939,000. This data shows an increase in NHS dentistry bought by PCTs of 1.6% against the previous quarter.
‘But we know we need to do more. The NHS is committed to ensuring that everyone who wants to can have access to an NHS dentist by March 2011.
‘We are supporting the NHS to meet this aim and have invested a record £2 billion in dentistry and set up a national access programme to help the NHS deliver this.’
Ms Keen added: ‘We have also accepted the recommendations made by the independent review of NHS dentistry, to further improve access and quality in the long term, and will begin developing clinical guidelines and piloting changes from this autumn.’
Separate figures showing the number of patients who have seen an NHS dentist in the past two years are expected to be published in the next few weeks.