Some NHS dental patients are being asked to pay for private appointments to get treatment while others face two-year waits to be seen, a watchdog has warned.
Healthwatch England was contacted by hundreds of people between October and December last year complaining about dentistry issues in the health service, with one patient told their odds of successful treatment would increase substantially if they paid for private care.
Another patient was offered a procedure for £1,700 which was £60 on the NHS.
According to a briefing document from the watchdog, seen by the PA Media news agency, one patient was told they faced a wait of two years for an NHS dental appointment, while another was told to use a nail file to deal with a broken tooth and others were advised to “buy dental repair kits and treat themselves”.
Sir Robert Francis QC, chair of Healthwatch England, said the coronavirus pandemic had “exacerbated the human impact of years of structural issues in NHS dentistry and is now pushing it to crisis point”.
The Healthwatch England document states: “A lack of NHS dentist appointments remains the most common issue that people have told us about.
“People have indicated that dentists have prioritised private care or asked them to pay private fees if they wanted any treatment.”
Infection control and social distancing mean that dentists are not able to see as many patients as they used to, and the sector also faces huge backlogs after being forced to shut for a number of weeks last year. The British Dental Association said 20m fewer dental treatments were carried out last year than in 2019.
A study by the Oral Health Foundation found that nearly one in four Britons have gone online to fix their dental problems at home during the pandemic, while Boots said sales of at-home dental kits were up by 87% in the last three months of 2020 compared with the previous year.
Dentists have been ordered to reach 45% of their pre-pandemic levels but they have raised serious concerns about increasing footfall in practices.
Talks over the target are said to have broken down, according to a group of MPs led by the Labour MP Virendra Sharma, who wrote to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, asking him to intervene.
Shawn Charlwood, chair of the British Dental Association’s general dental practice committee, said: “Sadly, government is forcing dentists to prioritise volume over need by imposing inappropriate targets.
“This service is yet to return to anything resembling business as usual. We need government to adopt a pragmatic approach, which keeps practices afloat and ensures those who need dental care the most can secure it.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the government was committed to supporting the dental sector through the pandemic: “Since last summer, all practices have been able to open to deliver the full range of face-to-face care with 600 extra urgent dental centres providing extra support.
“We continue to work closely with the NHS to increase access as fast as possible, while protecting staff and patients from Covid-19 infection.”
An NHS spokeswoman said: “It’s right that the NHS has set targets that help patients see their dentist, with many practices already going well beyond the target set.
“Despite the pandemic, millions of people received dental treatment last year and the NHS has set up over 650 urgent dental hubs so patients can get access to a dentist if they need it.”