"Dental crisis is a social justice issue"

Healthwatch England says the cost of NHS or private dental treatment is out of reach for many people in our society.
Photo of dentist and patient

The NHS dental crisis shows no signs of slowing, with four in five people (80%) struggling to access timely care during the last COVID-19 lockdown, according to evidence from our national body, Healthwatch England (HWE).

Local Healthwatch across the country have exposed a lack of consistency when it comes to accessing a dental appointment. Some people were asked to wait an unreasonable time of up to three years for an NHS appointment, while those able to afford private care could get an appointment within a week.

But both NHS and private treatment is out of reach for many people, particularly people on lower incomes or from ethnic minority groups, according to a special poll of more than 2,000 people commissioned by the HWE.

High cost of dental care

  • 61% of people felt that NHS dental treatments were expensive
  • 51% found it difficult to book an appointment
  • 39% believe they've been charged extra for NHS treatments and to cover for PPE
  • 30% have felt pressured into paying private fees to get all the treatment they need
  • 27% struggle to pay or avoid dental treatments because they can’t afford it
  • 23% will now visit the dentist only when they feel they need treatment, instead of going for regular check-ups
  • people in ethnic minority groups were less likely (26%) to go for regular check-ups compared with White people (41%)
  • People aged over 55 from ethnic minority groups who are on low incomes, were six times more likely to avoid treatments due to costs than their White counterparts

Imelda Redmond, national director of HWE, said oral health was a “social justice and equity issue” and urgent action was needed to make access to NHS dental services “equal and affordable for everyone, regardless of where people live, their income and ethnicity”. She added: “Failing to act now will result in long-term harm for thousands of people, putting even greater pressure on the already overstretched healthcare system.”

Reading case study

Healthwatch Reading spoke with Farzad*, a man in his 40s seeking asylum who had been placed in Reading during the pandemic. He originally came from Iran and did not speak or understand English. He spoke with us via an informal interpreter. He told us that he’d had a bad toothache for several weeks; he had holes in his teeth, they were bleeding, and he was in a lot pain. He had no access to pain relief and was limiting what he ate because he was struggling with solid foods. He was desperate and did not understand how he could get treatment. We established that no-one had ever told him he had been granted a certificate making him eligible for free NHS treatment. We rang and found a local dentist who agreed to see him, but they said an emergency appointment within a few days wasn’t possible as it would take longer to arrange an interpreter to be at the appointment. Farzad agreed to wait and he attended and finally received treatment he needed, including antibiotics.

Share your thoughts

You can help make health and care services better by sharing your experiences and ideas.

Talk to us