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By local democracy journalist Ciaran Duggan
Calls have been made for urgent government investment to tackle a growing dental crisis.
Kent County Council (KCC) shadow cabinet member for public health, Cllr Karen Constantine (Lab), says the NHS dentistry system is ‘broken’ and ‘overstretched’.
His comments come amid concerns over the long delays patients face for routine and major surgery appointments, with some Kent residents waiting up to two years to be seen.
Cllr Constantine, from Ramsgate, said: “I regularly come across residents who simply cannot believe how difficult it has become to book an appointment or join a dental practice, particularly when those suffering are children. .”
She says more money is urgently needed to train new dentists amid a staff shortage, adding: ‘Appointments just aren’t available.’
NHS dental practices have been operating at reduced capacity since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
All practices have been urged by NHS England to return to full delivery from this July.
The Department of Health and Social Care says billions of pounds are being invested to ‘burst’ the dental waiting list, due to the pandemic.
A government spokesperson said: “We are improving access to dental care for all NHS patients, supported by over £3billion in funding each year and a further £50million last year to help clearing the Covid backlog.”
However, the British Dental Association (BDA) says dental surgery is ‘woefully underfunded’ and believes urgent reform is needed.
“A backlog that will take years to resolve”
A BDA spokesperson said: “More than a year of NHS dental appointments have been lost since the lockdown, creating a backlog that will take years to clear, with patients now showing levels of higher need, having accumulated problems due to continuous access problems.”
The Kent NHS revealed in January that there were 196 dental practices and around 346 dentists, covering Kent’s population of 1.8million.
Closures of surgeries have become a feature of the county in recent years, such as the Church Hill dental practice in Ramsgate in March 2018 and three other practices in Kent in April 2020.
Cllr Constantine says the Secretary of State for Health and Care should present a plan to resolve the crisis to ensure that anyone who needs to see a dentist can do so free of charge and within a reasonable time.
She said: “This does not happen by accident. Twelve years of conservative mismanagement and underfunding of our NHS, including dentistry, has resulted in a system so overburdened it is broken.
She added: “People suffer because they can’t see a dentist.”
Solutions have included the establishment of new county dental practices by the NHS in Kent in the coming years, such as in Sandwich and Thanet.
Meanwhile, NHS dentists were more efficient delivering 26.4 million treatments between April 2021 and March 2022, more than double the number in the previous 12 months.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care added: “We are making better use of the range of professionals working in the sector, such as dental therapists, hygienists and nurses, while rewarding dentists more fairly for providing more complex care.”