The continuing struggle for many to access NHS dentistry has been highlighted by latest figures from NHS Digital, with the number of adults seen by NHS dentists within recommended timeframes falling by nearly a tenth.
A total of 16.4 million adults in England were seen for NHS dental treatment in the 24 months up to June 2022, NHS Digital has said.
However, this was a 9.5% reduction compared to the 24 months to June 2021, when 18.1 million adults were seen by NHS dentists within the recommended two-year guideline.
The decline is even steeper when compared with pre-pandemic access. Some 22 million adults were seen in the 24 months up to June 2019, meaning figures are down more than a quarter (25.3%) since before the pandemic.
The figures echo warnings from earlier in the summer of a growing ‘crisis’ in access to NHS dentistry.
An investigation by the BBC and the British Dental Association (BDA) concluded nine out of 10 NHS dental practices were now unable to offer appointments to new adult patients.
In all, 91% of NHS dental practices in England were not accepting new adult patients, with many having waiting times of a year or longer. Shawn Charlwood, chair of the BDA’s General Dental Practice committee, warned that NHS dentistry was as a result now “at a tipping point”.
Healthwatch England in August also warned of a rise in ‘DIY dentistry’, with people pulling their own teeth without anaesthesia or making improvised dentures because of being unable to access an NHS dentist.
NHS Digital emphasised that its figures do suggest the number of patients seen by an NHS dentist is increasing, but has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.
In 2021-22, 26.4 million courses of treatment were delivered by NHS dentists. This was an increase of 120% compared to the number delivered in 2020-21 (12 million). However, it was still a decrease of 33.6% compared with the number delivered in 2018-19 (39.7 million).
In addition, 3.8 million urgent courses of treatment were delivered in 2021-22, up 5.7% on 2020-21 and up 4.5% compared with 2018-19, NHS Digital added.
The figures also need to be read in the context that dental practices were instructed to close for routine care and provide only urgent treatment on March 25, 2020, as part of the first Covid-19 lockdown.
As a result, NHS Digital has pointed out, the most recent reporting period for which NHS dental statistics are unaffected by the pandemic is 2018-19.