Today I urged Ministers to rethink their approach to a new dental contract which threatens dental services across Sheffield and the rest of England.
In December, the Government introduced new targets for NHS dentists to achieve 45% of their ‘normal activity’, despite social distancing and deep-cleaning measures to keep dental practices Covid-secure which reduces the number of patients that can be seen.
This means that dental practices could face financial penalties for failing to reach these targets for ‘normal’ operations, encouraging priority for ‘normal activity’ appointments like check-ups over urgent care appointments which take longer and require more extreme deep cleaning afterwards.
I told the Minister that:
“This ‘normal activity’ target will skew priorities away from those patients most in need. As one dentist explained to me, they will be “forced to stop seeing emergency patients …… and to push the limits of the sound infection control procedures brought in to protect patients and staff”
As another said: “These targets are the wrong choice at the wrong time”
This is not scaremongering as has been suggested, but a real and genuine concern from dental professionals who care about the services they provide.”
Most courses of dental treatment for urgent care – for instance any involving drilling – involve Aerosol Generating Procedures (AGPs), which create airborne particles that can contain viruses and bacteria. After each such procedure dentists have been required to leave the treatment room empty for up to an hour before it can be cleaned, which dramatically lowers the number of patients that they can see.
As with so many issues, Covid-19 has highlighted existing problems with dental services. Pre-pandemic, the demand for NHS dentistry in Sheffield was huge with unmet need of over 35,000 patients (those who try and fail to get appointments, are put off by cost, are discouraged by doubt over availability, and those on waiting lists). We should be growing and protecting our dental services, not threatening them with fines.
Sheffield Central was in the top 10% of areas in the country where NHS dental care was impacted by the pandemic. The Association of Dental Groups say that problems are particularly acute in more deprived urban, coastal and rural areas, and 76% of respondents to a British Dental Association survey in Yorkshire and the Humber region report a significant increase in cancelled appointments or no shows since the third lockdown was announced, directly impacting on the ability to meet the targets.
Dentistry often doesn’t get the attention it deserves when we think about health services – but it’s absolutely vital. The nonsensical imposition of targets for ‘normal NHS activity’ in what are obviously abnormal times will not help patients; dentists tell me that the targets will actually impede patient care as it discourages a focus on the greatest need.
The Government must look at this again; instead of imposing arbitrary targets without consultation, they must work with dentists to find a solution focused on patient care.