Million patients lose NHS dentists
By Nic Fleming Medical Correspondent
Almost a million patients have lost their access to NHS dental care after one in 10 dentists refused to sign new contracts, the Government has admitted.
About 2,100 practitioners rejected a contentious shake-up of the service designed to simplify charges, reduce unnecessary consultations and improve access.
On top of the two million people who were already unable to get NHS treatment, 970,000 lost their dentist when the new contracts came into force a week ago.
Some of almost 6,000 dentists who signed up to the new contracts "in dispute" over how much work they are expected to carry out to earn a salary averaging £80,000 could quit the NHS by the summer unless agreements with their local primary care trusts (PCTs) can be reached.
Rosie Winterton, a health minister, said those who signed the contract represented 96 per cent of NHS dental services in England - leaving four per cent of the 24.4 million registered patients without provision.
Miss Winterton admitted that the figures were "quite gloomy" but said some of the work previously done by those who had refused to sign had been re-allocated and PCTs were making arrangements for many of those left out.
"Claims that dentists would leave the NHS in a mass exodus were unfounded," she said. "Around nine out of 10 dentists have signed up to the new contract, and these dentists provide around 96 per cent of current NHS dental services.
"PCTs are already making progress in replacing the small proportion of services where dentists have not taken up the new contract - something they did not have the power to do under the old system.
"It has to be said these figures are quite gloomy but in many areas these are, in a sense, the worst-case scenario.
"What we are seeing under the new system is the ability of the NHS to expand in terms of the number of people seen but it will take time for the reforms to bed down."
In September 1999 Tony Blair promised that by 2001 everyone who wanted access to an NHS dentist would have it.
Miss Winterton was optimistic that the new contract, part of the biggest shake-up in the service since 1948, would help achieve this goal.
In January 2006 there were 20,978 dentists working in the NHS, up from 16,815 in September 1997.
The figures released by the Department of Health yesterday showed that 1,096 contracts, some covering more than one dentist, of the 9,419 offered in England had been rejected.
Dr Barry Cockcroft, the acting chief dental officer, said it was "utterly unlikely" that a large proportion of the 30 per cent of contracts signed in dispute would lead to substantial numbers of dentists leaving the NHS.
The main objection of dentists is that they believe they will have to work up to 13 hours a day to meet the targets in the contracts.
Susie Sanderson, of the British Dental Association, said: "These reforms will not achieve the Government's stated aims of greater access, better prevention and quality of care - and getting dentists off the treadmill."
Dental care? Who'll notice in Britain?