NHS dentist provision ‘in death spiral’

Desperate residents are performing their own dental work because of a chronic shortage of NHS provision in Bristol and South Gloucestershire.

Councillors said the system was in a “death spiral” with an increasing number of practices going private and dentists leaving the area or the profession altogether.

A foster daughter who moved to South Gloucestershire could not find a dentist and so had to return to Swindon for treatment while a family of Ukrainian refugees even travelled back to their war-torn homeland because they could be seen there quicker, a council meeting heard.

NHS bosses admitted there was a “workforce crisis” but they were trying “innovative” ways to improve the situation, including offering more favourable contracts to dentists.

But South Gloucestershire health scrutiny committee members said they were not reassured and that wholescale changes were needed.

Kingswood ward Labour Cllr Andrea Reid said: “In terms of people performing their own treatment, we are way past that point. It’s not a future tense we are trying to avoid, it’s already happening.”

Frenchay & Downend ward Conservative Cllr James Griffiths said: “My worry is about the health inequality of this. We’ve had local dentists go private and send a letter to all the residents saying,‘you’ve no longer got an NHS dentist and if you’ve got a family of four, please can we have £600 a year’, depending on the package.

“It’s a national problem and we are in a death spiral with it, and making small alterations isn’t going to resolve the big problem.

“It’s a death spiral because as more and more people go over to the private sector, they can then pay them more, the NHS service gets worse each year and it will slowly degrade and more people will go over.”

He said dentists had told him they got paid between £30,000 and £60,000 a year more to treat the same patients privately than on the NHS.

New Cheltenham ward Labour Cllr Sandie Davis said: “In the last two weeks a foster carer with a new placement, a child from Swindon, has phoned every place in South Gloucestershire and surrounding area to try to find a dentist for this child.

“She is still travelling to Swindon for treatment.

“There is a family who took in some Ukrainian refugees and they couldn’t find a dentist so they travelled at Christmas back to war-torn Ukraine to see a dentist. It’s just shocking.”

NHS England South West director of dental, specialised and health and justice commissioning Steve Sylvester told the meeting: “I fully recognise the challenges. It has been a longstanding matter.

“Our ability to control and influence practices is hampered. They are independent businesses in the main.

“We’re trying to secure more additional capacity and we are trying different pathways of care.

“It is hard, I’m not going to deny it, but we have a dental community who want to work with us now and we are listening to and supporting them.”

A report to members said adult patient numbers at NHS dentists in South Glos had fallen steadily and stood at 36.7 per cent in June 2022. 

By Alex Seabrook, Local Democracy Reporting Service