Many patients in south-west England are being left in dental pain because they are unable to register for NHS care, with some so desperate that they are even resorting to DIY treatment, it has emerged.
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The charity Healthwatch in Somerset has reported that it is almost impossible for a new patient to register for an NHS dentist in the county, which is leading to adults and children living in agony, self-treating, or travelling out of the area for help.
Cases on its books include a woman who got her husband to pierce an abscess because she was in excruciating pain and could not find NHS treatment. “I was in tears with the pain and got my husband to burst the abscess with a needle and I then had a mouthwash with warm water and salt,” she said.
A man from Bridgwater, who asked not to be named, said he recently had a large filling fall out. He was not registered with an NHS dentist and could not find one. “I went to the chemist and they gave me a product called Dentemp. The clue’s in the name, but I’ve been using it for six weeks now and will keep going with it until the pain just gets too bad.”
Alan Hardcastle: ‘If I have to go private, it has a massive impact on our household income, but I may have to bite the bullet.’
Alan Hardcastle, 51, from Glastonbury, was upset when he was told he and his 11-year-old son had been removed from his NHS dentist’s register because they had not had an appointment since before the pandemic.
The college lecturer has toothache and is struggling to find another dentist. “I’ve rung round 14 so far in Glastonbury, Street and Bridgwater. One says they can take my son on, but none will take me. I can only eat on one side of my mouth. If I have to go private, it has a massive impact on our household income, but I may have to bite the bullet.”
One NHS worker has been suffering with toothache for three days. “I spent a whole day trying to find a dentist and am still in agony,” they said. “I can’t believe no dentist will see me. My NHS dentist took me off their register after 20 years of being a loyal patient. I was told there are not enough dentists in the practice now. I work for £10.18 an hour and I can’t afford private rates.”
A mature student said she was experiencing pain after root canal work. She tried to register with 10 NHS surgeries in and around Taunton and was told none were accepting patients. One practice told her to check in Devon.
One person who said their family had been removed from their dentist’s register during the Covid lockdown said they had rung “countless” surgeries because their daughter had an abscess. They were worried that their daughter could suffer sepsis and the blood tests she needed were being delayed.
Experts in dental care said they were not surprised by the situation in Somerset.
Dr Nigel Carter, CEO of the Oral Health Foundation, said the impact of factors such as Brexit and coronavirus on top of dentists’ dissatisfaction with NHS contracts and too few new dentists being trained had led to a shortage of places in NHS practices. “We’ve had a perfect storm,” he said.
He said he was aware of people carrying out their own dentistry, including using temporary fillings and even extracting wobbly teeth. “We need more dentists,” he said. Carter criticised NHS England for not accepting that there was a problem in Somerset. “They are burying their heads in the sand,” he said.
Eddie Crouch, the chair of the British Dental Association, said even before the pandemic people were doing round trips of 50 miles in Somerset to find an NHS dentist and more practitioners were leaving for private practice or only doing NHS work part time.
NHS England insisted there were dental appointments to be found in Somerset – but did not provide figures on how many surgeries were accepting new NHS patients, saying the decision was up to individual practices.
A spokesperson for NHS England and NHS Improvement South West said: “More than 550 additional urgent care appointments are available every month across Somerset to ensure those with urgent clinical need can access treatment, and community and special care services continue to treat patients. We are in the process of securing extra high street dental services across the south-west.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’ve given the NHS £50m to fund up to 350,000 extra dental appointments and we are growing the workforce so people can get the oral care they need.”