Rotten teeth are rarely life-threatening, thanks to antibiotics. Tooth loss mainly affects people in later life and is strongly associated with ageing and decline – a subject that many people prefer not to think about. Dentists are to a considerable extent separate from the rest of the NHS, and especially from the big hospitals where attention on the health service tends to focus. A larger proportion of dental treatment is carried out privately than other forms of healthcare. NHS England’s last GP patient survey, before the March 2020 lockdown, found that 21% of people in the south-east have a private dentist.
A combination of these factors probably explains why dentistry is often left out of discussions about the NHS. A sharp fall in the number of NHS dentists, combined with alarming regional disparities leading to “dental deserts” where there are few or none, shows how urgently this needs to change. The latest figure of 21,544 NHS dentists in England is the lowest for a decade, with acute shortages in counties including Lincolnshire and Norfolk. In Thurrock, Essex, just 26.1% of adults and 30.7% of children have seen a dentist in the past two years. Figures in several other areas are not much better.
In Scotland, too, the British Dental Association has warned that most practices are likely to reduce their NHS commitment, with many dentists considering retiring. There are similar problems, only partly caused by the pandemic, in Wales and Northern Ireland. What dentistry requires, from politicians in the four administrations but also the NHS itself, is more attention. Without a joined-up policy response, there is every chance of further weakening and fragmentation. Based on the existing evidence, including last year’s report on oral health inequalities from Public Health England, this should be expected to strengthen the link between socioeconomic deprivation and poor outcomes, including mouth cancers as well as periodontal disease (which is also caused by smoking) and tooth decay in children. (Data on oral health inequalities related to ethnicity and other characteristics is less clear.)
Over the longer term, there is an extraordinarily positive story to be told about teeth. In 1948, three-quarters of all British adults had dentures. In the NHS’s early years, dentists were overwhelmed by need. The rising cost of treatment is what led to the hugely controversial introduction of charges.
More recently, dentistry has been characterised by an uneasy compromise between public and private. What this means in practice is many dentists providing one service to NHS patients (including children, pregnant women and some benefit claimants) and a range of additional treatments – often for cosmetic reasons – to those who can pay. As with consultants and GPs, the contracts under which such arrangements operate are complicated.
But it is clear what is needed now. Increasing longevity means that we all need to take more care than ever, if we want to hold on to our teeth until old age. As with healthcare in general, prevention is infinitely preferable to cure. So areas lacking dentists must have them. Like the NHS’s wider staffing problems, this one cannot be fixed overnight. But if Sajid Javid wants to make a move in the right direction, he could announce straight away that the government will stop opposing the eminently sensible workforce planning amendment that peers have been trying to add to its health and care bill – and back it instead.