NI dental services ‘at tipping point’

BDA NI says new system must ensure health service dentistry is financially sustainable ‘without being kept afloat by income from private work’

Nine out of 10 dental practices are unable to offer appointments to new adult patients, according to the British Dental Association Northern Ireland.

Access is now at a “tipping point”, it says, as 246 practices out of 274 confirm they are not accepting new patients.

The findings come as part of a survey said to be the most extensive of its type ever carried out. The BBC study, carried out between May and July this year, asked every UK dental practice with an NHS contract if they were willing to take on new patients.

The BDA NI is now pressing the UK Government to “step up and deliver” urgent reform.

Of those practices not taking on adults in Northern Ireland, 20 per cent – a total of 48 – said they had an open waiting list, and 11 per cent – 28 – said the wait time was a year or longer or were unable to forecast how long it would be.

Practices were only recorded as taking on new health service patients if they could get an appointment within eight weeks. In one local authority area, Antrim and Newtownabbey, none of the dentists contacted were taking on any new adult patients.

Belfast had the highest number of health service practices, but only 8 per cent of them – five out of a total of 64 surveyed – were accepting new health service adult and children patients.

In all, 88 per cent of the surveyed practices were also unable to accept new child patients.

Ciara Gallagher, chair of the BDA NI’s Dental Practice Committee, commented: “We can only hope dental care in Northern Ireland has not yet reached the point of no return.

“Dentists are already moving on and practices are struggling to remain viable, because the numbers that health service dentistry is based on simply don’t add up. This postcode lottery our patients now face will only end when we see real reform backed up by fair funding.”

The BDA NI said that health service dentists had suffered an overall reduction in their incomes of 40 per cent in real terms” since 2008/09.

It added that practices were facing soaring costs, with dental inflation estimated at more than 11 per cent. The association says that many dentists now face the prospect of delivering NHS care at a financial loss. The body believes that the “discredited” high volume/low margin model the service has used for the past 30 years is no longer delivering for patients or the dental profession and should now be discarded.

The BDA NI added: “A new system must ensure health service dentistry is financially sustainable in its own right without being kept afloat by income from private work undertaken by practices.”

Leaders in the profession are pressing for interim support measures to be put in place until a new contract is implemented. “However, there remains huge uncertainty about whether the level of investment needed for this service to survive will be forthcoming.”

According to the survey, 67 per cent of the Northern Irish population is currently registered with a dentist. This represents an increase from the 64 per cent registered in the 2014-2021 period.

Stormont’s Department of Health said it was developing a dedicated scheme to improve access to dental care for unregistered patients.

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Published: 12 September, 2022 at 19:45