A new study, published in the British Journal of General Practice has found that GPs see 380,000 patients a year with dental problems

The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice (BJGP), warned that GP appointments for dental problems are ‘often not an effective or efficient use of resources’, with the result being that pressure is ‘piled on overstretched GPs who are simply unequipped to help.’

The survey of 39 patients who went to their GP with a dental problem found that people are turning to doctors because of the availability of appointments compared with dental care. The aim of the study was to discover why patients consult their GP rather than attending the dentist when experiencing teeth or gum problems.

‘Growing barriers’

Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen, chairman of general dental practice at the British Dental Association, commented: ‘Ministers need to end the hostile environment many patients face, and ensure all those who need our care can access it.

‘Dental patients face growing barriers, from higher charges to longer journeys, where even those entitled to free care face the ever-present threat of fines for misclaiming. The result is millions are being wasted.’

Willingness and ability to pay for dental care was also an issue, the authors found, as they concluded: ‘Accessible public-facing information on where to seek care for dental problems is required, and general practice teams should be able to signpost patients who present with dental problems, if appropriate.’

‘GPs not trained to treat dental problems’

Dr Steve Mowle, honorary treasurer of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘While GPs are trained to deal with a multitude of health concerns, we are not trained to treat dental problems – these are best left to the care of a professional dentist or, if required, urgent care services.’

The BJGP found that the patients’ decision to visit their GP was influenced by various factors: their interpretation of their symptoms, perception of the scope of what GPs offer, the comparative ease of booking and navigating medical appointments compared with dental ones, anxiety around dental care and ability or willingness to pay for dental care.

According to the report, the answer to this issue is effective intervention in order to break down barriers that prevent access to dental care. Public-facing information may be needed in order to explain when and why dental care might be required, and practices should educate those presenting dental problems as necessary.

Dental practices should also be encouraged to maintain timely access to urgent care for patients.

Dr Steve Mowle, honorary treasurer of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘The health service is struggling across the board at the moment, and we recognise that patients may struggle to get an NHS dental appointment, just as we know many are finding it difficult to get a GP appointment. Surgeries employing GPs with additional training in complementary medicine less likely to prescribe antibiotics. While GPs are trained to deal with a multitude of health concerns, we are not trained to treat dental problems – there are best left to the care of a professional dentist or, if required, urgent care services.

‘With GPs already seeing more than a million patients in the UK every day, and increasing number of patients waiting more than a week to see a GP, seeing patients with dental problems isn’t the best use of our time, and anyone who does try to book an appointment for a dental problem will most likely be referred to an appropriate alternative.’