Healthwatch England (HE) has issued a severe warning about the future of NHS dentistry. Its latest report claims that Covid-19 has pushed NHS dental care to the brink of crisis, but the truth is that it was travelling in that direction well before the pandemic hit.
Under the cover of the health crisis, an acceleration in the privatisation of dental provision has now made clear what was going on all along.
HE’s report contains a review of 1,300 people’s experiences of accessing dental care. Its findings are stark:
“More than 7 in 10 people (73 percent) found it difficult to access help and support when they needed it.
“Access issues were caused by dentists not taking on NHS patients, as well as conflicting advice from different parts of the NHS about what help is available.
“Many people were offered treatment if they went private, despite research indicating that 40 percent of people would struggle to afford private dental care.
“The impact of not being able to access care led to many people experiencing pain, discomfort and further complications.” (Our emphasis)
Shawn Charlwood, chair of the British Dental Association’s general dental practice committee, is on record as saying: “For too long meaningful reform of NHS dentistry has been repeatedly kicked down the road. Covid has pushed a system already in crisis to breaking point, with millions left with no options.”
The British Dental Association has also reported that “treatments delivered by NHS dental services in England are at a quarter of pre-Covid levels, with over 14.5 million fewer procedures taking place”.
Wait three years for an NHS appointment, or pay and get one now
Healthwatch England’s report highlights problems right across the country for the working-class people who use NHS services. These problems include:
1. Patients removed from practice lists without warning if they don’t make an appointment within a given time period.
2. Repeated cancellation of appointments – even mid-way through treatment – blamed on Covid-19.
3. Waiting lists of thousands for some surgeries, with many patients unable even to get onto a waiting list.
4. The shutting down of many NHS surgeries or their conversion to purely private practices.
5. Wait times of up to three years for appointments – or six weeks (!) for emergency care.
6. Having to call 111 in an emergency and being told to “use salt water” and to carry on calling practices to try to get proper help.
7. Being told to use DIY filling kits while waiting for an appointment.
8. Being prescribed antibiotics to crush symptoms rather than a follow-up appointment to treat the problem.
According to the report: “People have felt pressured to go private as dentists have said that they couldn’t provide NHS treatments but were able to give almost instant treatment if people were willing to pay private fees.”
These treatment delays for the poorest and most needy have “resulted in the worsening of painful symptoms and in one instance even led to a patient needing hospital treatment after they overdosed on painkillers”.
Poor being priced out, even by the NHS
The HE watchdog also warned that “even when people can get access to dental care on the health service, three fifths (61 percent) of people deem treatment too expensive”.
This is because while some people do get access to really free dental care – including children, pregnant women and those receiving income benefit support – many need to pay rates of between £23.80 for routine treatment and £282.80 for more complex care. Healthwatch England points out that as a result (and perfectly predictably) some people are avoiding treatment because they cannot afford the cost, making this a “twin crisis of access and affordability”.
Almost a quarter (23 percent) of those interviewed for a 2,000-person survey said they only visit a dentist when they actually need treatment, despite guidance recommending that everybody should have regular dental check-ups. According to the HE (again entirely predictably), those are most likely to be people on low incomes.
Meanwhile, in what must be assumed to be an alternate reality, a Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesman said, presumably with plastic smile and fingers crossed:
“We are committed to supporting the dental sector throughout this unprecedented pandemic so everyone across the country can access affordable, high-quality dental care. All dental practices have been able to deliver their full range of face-to-face care since last June, with over 600 practices providing additional support for urgent dental treatment.
“We continue to support the most vulnerable by providing exemptions from dental charges for certain groups – nearly half of all dental treatments, over 17 million, were provided free of charge in 2019-20.”
The NHS should have always included all dentists and GPs with no private healthcare allowed. It should always have included the manufacture of all medicines and medical equipment (the pharmaceutical industry). These things were left in private hands by the Labour party when the NHS was created and have always been a huge drain on whatever funding the NHS has been given by government.
So hard is it now to find a dental practice willing to accept new NHS patients, or to afford the prices of said NHS treatment if you manage to work that bit of magic, that a new market for DIY oral healthcare has sprung up to ‘serve’ the multitude of sufferers.
A quick search online brings forth hundreds of results offering a plethora of kits for repairing lost fillings, securing loose caps and crowns, repairing broken teeth and more (cherry flavoured dental cement or a resin-based composite syringe, anyone?) – a vivid illustration of the fact that capitalism will always find an answer if the question is: ‘How can we make profits out of the destitute and suffering?’
The only possible solution is the complete renationalisation of all dental services in Britain and the scrapping of all dentistry charges. If the capitalists can’t provide the most elementary of care to the workers who generate their wealth, we must build a new society that will.