Patients face painful wait for dentists

I have spoken to three different people, from different backgrounds and different areas of Cornwall, but all have one thing in common: trying to get an NHS dentist! One has even considered taking a pair of pliers to his own teeth...

Above, dentist Fergus Brown spoke to Laurence Reed about the alarming length of NHS waiting lists; below, Fergus with practice manager Vicky Hatton

I have spoken to three different people, from different backgrounds and different areas of Cornwall, but all have one thing in common: trying to get an NHS dentist!

One has even considered taking a pair of pliers to his own teeth, such was the agony he was in we’ll hear more from him a bit later.

In the UK, the number of dentists has fallen from 46,000 to just over 40,000 in five years. In Cornwall, the number barely exceeds 200, to cover a resident population of more than 550,000.

There is no real answer to the length of NHS waiting lists in the county, but people I have spoken to have talked about a three-year period. Jenny Mason, who recently moved into Cornwall from “upcountry”, says she has been forced to pay for private treatment, as her nearest NHS practice was the other side of Plymouth a round trip of about 120 miles.

Even though she fosters vulnerable children, no practices locally can fit her in. Vicky Hatton is the practice manager of Cathedral Dental Practice in Truro. Having run the business for the past four years, she told me the practice has four resident dentists and one hygienist, and a staggering 10,000 patients.

“We cover a huge area, with patients coming from all over the county,” she says. At least 90 per cent are NHS patients. Not surprisingly, the covid 19 outbreak had a devastating impact on business with guidance allowing only the neediest to get treatment.

“We are trying to get our routine back on track, but we still have a backlog of patients who have been incredibly understanding of our predicament,” says Vicky.

“We are trying to see them all as quickly as possible, but current restrictions introduced to protect dentists and patients are reducing the number of people we can treat.”

“During the height of covid they were completely closed except for phone calls, prescriptions and advice. Practice co-owner Fergus Brown, 36, says: “Just before the pandemic struck, we took on an additional 700 patients, after securing additional funding from the NHS to take them off the waiting list. It meant we could employ an extra dentist, but when covid hit, we were notified that the additional funding had been withdrawn.”

“Unfortunately, having pleaded with the NHS to reinstate this funding with no luck, we had to let him go (he’s found alternative work). We are still trying to see the extra patients as best we can, and offering them emergency care, but it’s very difficult.”

Meanwhile, the standard of Cornwall’s teeth has suffered badly during covid. “It’s not a great state of affairs,” says Fergus. “I’m getting some patients coming back, who I’ve stabilised over a number of years, who have gone downhill again.

“They now have a lot of tooth decay and gum disease, which is not great.” He says those in dire straits during lockdown have managed to get treatment in urgent dental care hubs, but again the main issue was waiting times.

One man who knows just how bad these have been is Andy from Redruth, who had to wait six years just to get an NHS dentist, and was forced to wait two weeks to get his abscess and tooth removed by a dentist in Penzance.

Meanwhile, Terry in Bodmin told me: “It’s been an absolute nightmare. For the past 18 months, I have been unable to see a dentist. I have even considered pulling my own teeth out I actually looked for tutorials on YouTube. I can’t stand it any more the pain is indescribable and just gets me down.”

Terry says the NHS needs to employ more dentists. “It’s obvious. I don’t know the ratio of patients to dentists in Cornwall, but it is appalling.”

Back at the Cathedral practice, Fergus a member of the local dental committee told me there was a nationwide shortage of dentists even before the pandemic, particularly in the South West.

“We have got really big issues with recruitment and maintaining NHS dentists. Whether it’s the location some may prefer to be nearer bigger cities, and do not want to commit to living down in Cornwall or perhaps the lure of earning more money privately, there are difficulties at the moment.”

He wants the NHS to improve its communication. “During the pandemic, we needed a little bit more warning about what was going to happen, so we had time to prepare the practice. We were told at the same time as the public.”

Fergus adds: “We need our funding back to help look after the additional 700 patients we have taken on. We do not want them to go back to the bottom of the waiting list. We are trying to do our best for these patients, but without the funding it is incredibly hard.”

“Waiting times are even worse now due to a backlog of patients needing treatment after lockdown, and the fact that the practice can only use about 65 per cent of its normal capacity. “

“Increased cleaning, disinfecting protocols, a huge increase of PPE that we have to put on and take off it all takes time, and after any treatment that involves a drill with a water spray, we have to leave the room empty for half an hour before we can clean it and see another patient.”

Fergus and his colleagues are trying their best, as are the vast majority of mixed practices across Cornwall. One thing I personally admire is that despite losing funding for the extra 700 patients Fergus took on to reduce the waiting list, he continues to care for them when he could have justifiably dumped them all.

A spokesperson for NHS England and NHS Improvement Southwest said: “Dental practices are independent businesses, often providing a combination of NHS and private dentistry. “Cathedral Dental Practice remains committed to treating NHS patients in Cornwall, but has decided to decrease the number of patients it can offer NHS treatment to, due to the combination of a fixed contract ending and dentist availability.

“To be clear this was the practice’s decision and not one made by NHS England and Improvement. The local NHS England and NHS Improvement dental commissioning team is working with local partners and accessing additional support available nationally, to address the shortfall in NHS dental services in Cornwall.”

“People in Cornwall can use the dental helpline to find an NHS dentist, and urgent dental care is available through Westcountry Dental in Truro or by calling NHS 111.”

Are you facing an uphill struggle trying to get an NHS dentist locally? Have you considered or even carried out your own repairs? Message me on Twitter @laurencereed or email me at laurence.reed