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Tuesday, January 12, 1999 Published at 22:41 GMT


Decline in NHS dentistry takes toll

The health of the nation's teeth appears to be declining

The exodus of dentists from the national health service is beginning to have an effect on the state of the nation's mouths.

Justin Rowlatt: Evidence suggests that dental care for all may already be a thing of the past
Dentists are increasingly opting to go private, saying that they can not give NHS patients good care for the money the government pays.

Cornwall dentist John Weld says he has felt torn over the decision to set up a private practice.

"Half of me is delighted because the patients that have stayed with us are getting a much better service... but on the other side there are patients now who haven't got dentists and... I do regret what is happening to them - it is sad," he said.

Service in decay

The NHS was established in 1948 and brought about a steady improvement in dental health in Britain. But the latest surveys of children's dental health show levels of decay have increased by up to 50% in some parts of the country.

The decision by dentists to leave the NHS has left thousands of people without dental care.

In Cornwall, for example, it is almost impossible to find a dentist willing to take on new NHS patients. The number of people registered with a dentist in the county has fallen by 70,000 in six years.

When Neil Corbett opened a new NHS dental practice in the county, 4000 people signed up in just three weeks.

"We worked it out that sometimes we were registering 70 people an hour. I had to get my brother in as a bouncer to hold people out of the practice because they were just packing in so tightly," he said.

Emergency overload

Those in Cornwall without a dentist turn to an emergency help line as a last resort. The line gets between 70 and 90 calls a day.

Haidee Lynch, one of two full time staff who takes the calls, says their problem is that just 11 out of a total 170 dentists in the county will accept NHS patients.

As a result people often have to take a round trip of 80 miles to find a dentist.

"We have callers that are coming back to us now who have been unable to find registration and therefore because they have not had their routine care are presenting with problems to the dental help line and needing urgent attention," she said.

Funding promised

The Department of Health says dentistry is a priority and points to the £19m it has committed to improving services.

In a statement to the BBC, health minister John Denham said Cornwall alone had seen the Government allocate over £300,000 to the 'Investing in Dentistry scheme'.

He said that gave nearly 25,000 patients access to NHS care, while nationally 15 Personal Dental Services pilot schemes have been launched with £600,000 to fund their preparatory costs.

The government has also allocated £10m to provide NHS dental care for children in poorer communities.

But the British Dental Association's John Hunt of says only £6m of the promised money has been produced.

"We know that in the comprehensive spending review in the summer a lot of extra cash was promised for the NHS but we've no evidence that much of this is going to come the way of dentists," Mr Hunt said.

Without extra cash, dentists warn that dentistry could go back to what it was pre-1948.

"We'll have people who can afford to go to the dentist we'll have good mouths and there'll be the people who can't who'll have rampant disease, uncontrolled disease and we'll have extraction dentistry," John Weld said.

The evidence on the ground shows that that could already be happening.

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