The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified pre-existing problems around the cost of and access to dentistry in the UK, with four out of five people (80%) struggling to access dental care during the various lockdowns, according to research.
Research by Healthwatch England found access to NHS dental care continued to be a problem for people across England, with a 22% rise in calls and complaints about dentistry between January and March 2021.
Dental health and dentistry
There were wide inconsistencies across the country, with some people being asked to wait for up to three years for an NHS appointment while those able to afford private care could get an appointment within a week, it added.
Even the cost of NHS dentistry was becoming an issue for many, with 61% of people polled feeling NHS dental treatments were expensive.
More than a quarter (27%) of over 2,000 people surveyed said they struggled to pay NHS dental fees or avoided dental treatments altogether because they could not afford the costs.
Nearly one in three (30%) reported feeling pressured into paying private fees to get all the dental treatment they need, with nearly two in five (39%) saying they had been charged extra for their NHS treatments.
The situation had led to almost a quarter (23%) only visiting their dentist when they needed treatment rather than for regular check-ups.
Imelda Redmond, national director of Healthwatch England, said: “The twin crisis of access and affordability hitting NHS dentistry means many people are not able to access timely care – and the poorest are hardest hit.
“Reform of dental contracts needs to be a matter of urgency for this government. New arrangements should include making access to NHS dental services equal and affordable for everyone, regardless of where people live, their income and ethnicity. Failing to act now will result in long-term harm for thousands of people, putting even greater pressure on the already overstretched healthcare system.”
The report comes on the back of warnings by the British Dental Association that mouth cancer referrals have fallen by 60% since the first UK lockdown in March 2020 and that this could lead to a potentially devastating rise in mortality.
The pandemic has also meant routine dental visits have been delayed or cancelled and then often not rebooked, health insurer Towergate Health & Protection has warned.
This could mean employees are at risk of mouth cancer being left undiagnosed. It has urged employers to investigate options as to how they can look after their employees, whether through better health promotion and communication or by actually offering access to employer-funded dental care.
Brett Hill, distribution director at Towergate Health & Protection, said: “Early detection is key to improved survival rates of mouth cancer but with dental appointments hugely delayed and even cancelled completely, due to Covid, many people are now at risk of it going undetected. It is generally a dentist who is likely to be the first to spot signs of mouth cancer and employers have a vital role to play by providing access to dental care.”