Residents in the whole county of Somerset are unable to register as new NHS dentist patients for routine care, a patient champion organisation has claimed.
One patient in the south-western county has described being left in tears after being told she could not access NHS care and if she wanted to get treatment she would have to pay £1,100.
The situation has become so bad the NHS has set up a phoneline to help people access emergency dental care.
Healthwatch Somerset said this only covers emergency care and patients then need to find an NHS dentist to complete the work.
Healthwatch Somerset said a third of the calls it received in the three months to February 2022 were about problems accessing NHS dentistry – with many of the calls concerning children, pregnant women and people who cannot afford private dental care.
It also warned that some elderly people in care homes were being struck off NHS dentist lists after not being able to attend an appointment throughout the pandemic.
Many NHS dentists take patients off their lists if they have not attended an appointment in a set amount of time.
Healthwatch England – the national body representing patients – also warned a lack of access to NHS dentistry is deepening health inequalities across the country.
New polling for the patient champion, shared with the PA news agency, found about two in five (41%) people have experienced difficulty booking an NHS dental appointment.
Almost a quarter (24%) said they had to pay privately to access care.
Some 17% said they felt “pressured” to pay privately when they tried to book a dental appointment.
The survey of 2,000 adults in England found about half (49%) think NHS dental charges are “unfair” amid the rising cost of living.
Healthwatch England said the shortage of dental appointments had hit people on low incomes hardest as they are less likely to have been able to access dental care compared to people on high incomes.
Watch: Dentist debunks viral toothpaste dispenser trend
Meanwhile, some 20% of people living in the south of England said they can afford private dental care if they cannot find an NHS dentist, compared to seven per cent in the north.
Healthwatch England said there was a “twin crisis” of access and affordability in NHS dentistry.
The body has called for the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care to reform the health service’s contract with dentists.
It comes after the Association of Dental Groups found that 2,000 dentists quit the NHS last year.
Louise Ansari, national director at Healthwatch England, said: “Access to NHS dentistry has been one of the most significant issues people have raised with us in the last two years.
“There is now a deepening crisis in dental care, leaving people struggling to get treatment or regular check-ups on the NHS.
“The shortage of NHS appointments is creating a two-tier dental system, which widens inequalities and damages the health of the most disadvantaged communities.
“With millions of households bearing the brunt of the escalating living costs, private treatment is simply not an option and even NHS charges can be a challenge. This needs urgent attention if the Government is to achieve its levelling-up plan and tackle health disparities.
“We are once again calling on the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England for greater ambition and urgency from NHS dental reform plans to create a fair and inclusive dental service. We strongly recommend that a new dental contract is in place before Integrated Care Systems take on formal responsibility for dentistry from next April.”
Healthwatch Somerset manager Gill Keniston-Goble said: “In the past year, 22% of our feedback has been about people not being able to find an NHS dentist.
“People are telling us they have called many dentists but cannot find one taking new patients. We are also hearing from the public that NHS England is advising there are no dentists taking new NHS patients in Somerset.
“One piece of feedback we received was about dental care in care homes – residents who were registered with NHS dentists pre-Covid (pandemic) have now been removed from their original dental practices lists because they were unable to visit as they were bed-bound or immobile.
“We therefore welcome the news from NHS England and NHS Improvement South-West that changes have been made to the Somerset dental helpline and people living in Somerset who are not registered with a dental practice should call NHS 111 if they need urgent treatment or advice.”
Lydia Davis, who moved to Bridgwater, Somerset, in early 2020 said she has not been able to find an NHS dentist within a two-hour radius.
The 27-year-old suffers from a form of gum disease called gingivitis and her gums frequently bleed when she brushes her teeth, she also needs two new fillings and wisdom teeth removal.
After she was unable to find a local NHS provider, she sought private care.
“Sitting in the dentist’s office, listening to the list of treatments, the cost of £1,100 brought me to tears. These costs were on top of the £50 I had to spend to have her appointment,” Lydia said.
She added: “Whenever I eat and feel a twinge, my heart drops – I panic that something terrible is happening again, I am anxious all the time and my mental health suffers because of it.
“It isn’t fair for people who earn high salaries to be using a cheap NHS dental service whilst others on low incomes go into debt trying to look after themselves.
“There’s no version of private dentistry that’s affordable. Even using the word ‘affordable’ for private dental care is a slap in the face when you are paying your taxes towards a vital service you have no access to.”
Shawn Charlwood, chair of the British Dental Association’s general dental practice committee, said: “For over a decade this service has been running on empty, our patients paying more just so the Treasury can pay less.
“Choices made by Government mean dentists are now walking away from the NHS while millions go without the care they need.
“A problem made in Whitehall needs to be fixed in Whitehall, with real reform and fair funding.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “Dentistry is an important NHS service and that’s why we have taken unprecedented action to support NHS dentists including providing financial protection to ensure dental practices can continue to offer valuable services for patients, and committing up to an additional £50 million for people requiring urgent care treatment.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’ve given the NHS £50 million to fund up to 350,000 extra dental appointments and we are growing the workforce so people can get the oral care they need.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve asked dentists to prioritise available capacity on vulnerable groups and those with an urgent need, while continuing to provide free dental care to groups such as pregnant women, young people, and those on low-income benefits.
“Now as we learn to live with Covid, we are committed to levelling up health outcomes – including on dental issues – across the country, and ensuring that everyone has the chance to live longer and healthier lives, regardless of background.”