Lothian residents wait up to 6 months to access NHS dental care
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In particular, people are having issues registering as an NHS patient with a new practice, with many not accepting fresh clients or operating long waiting lists.
Data from Public Health Scotland showed that between April and November 2020, the number of NHS courses of treatment delivered was 83% lower than the same period in 2019.
Lawrence Titley, from Livingston, said: “My jaw hit the floor when they told me I could expect to wait six months for some fillings. It's completely absurd to wait half a year for a routine bit of dentistry.”
Lawrence managed to register with a new dentist and get a check-up in February of this year, but is facing months before he can get treatment.
Many others across the region are struggling too, especially those who have moved into the area in the last year.
Meggie Williams, who moved to Edinburgh in September 2020, found herself with a painful tooth in January and tried to find an NHS dentist.
She tried five NHS dental clinics and was told by all of them they weren’t accepting new patients. She was forced to go private and pay for a filling.
Meggie said: “I had no choice but to pay to get it done as I had no idea how long I would be waiting, or if it would even be possible, to get it done on the NHS. The whole thing ended up being very expensive and quite stressful.
“When you pay the full cost of dental care it makes you realise how lucky you are to normally get it on the NHS.”
At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, all non-emergency dental care was suspended. Routine NHS dental treatments were resumed in November in Scotland.
However, practices are still operating at reduced capacity to meet infection control protocols, which requires ‘fallow time’ of up to an hour between treatments.
Fallow time is the period allowed for droplets to settle and aerosol to disperse before environmental cleaning occurs – but can be reduced by improved ventilation.
This has contributed to the huge waiting times and difficulties many have had with accessing NHS services.
Steven Brown, a student, moved to North Berwick with his family in October 2020 and they had significant issues registering with a new dentist.
They did not get appointments until March 2021 – five months after beginning the registration process – and had to register using paper forms rather than online or over the phone.
Steven said: “This has been a very annoying process to carry out after just moving to East Lothian. Coronavirus has made the process of registering, particularly as an NHS patient, even more strenuous.”
With many dental issues, prevention is key, and Lawrence added: “I've massively improved my dental habits, but I do spend some nights awake worrying if irreparable harm is going to happen while I'm waiting to get treated.”
The British Dental Association (BDA) is particularly worried about oral health inequalities increasing as a result of the pandemic backlog.
Primary school children from the most deprived communities experience more than four times the level of tooth decay compared to children in the least deprived areas, according to Public Health Scotland data.
A spokesperson from the BDA said: “There is an unprecedented backlog in dentistry and dentists are working flat out trying to tackle it. An estimated 2,500 children are now facing up to year-long waits for dental extractions in hospitals.
“Practices are operating at significantly reduced capacity to meet infection control protocols, and the BDA is seeking capital investment in areas such as ventilation that can help restore patient volumes.
“The dental budget in Scotland has been cut in real terms in three out of the last four years. This situation must change if dentists are ever going to meet historic levels of demand.”
The BDA called upon the four Chief Dental Officers in each of the UK nations to commission a roadmap for safe relaxation of the current restrictions limiting access to dentistry.
The Association’s Chair, Eddie Crouch said: “The risk we face today from the virus needs to be balanced against the millions unable to access care.
“It is time to let the experts weigh up the risk of Covid transmission with the dangers of prolonging the status quo. Both patients and the profession deserve clarity on the way ahead.”
The Scottish Government has announced it is providing £5m for dentists to help them see more patients during the pandemic.
Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said the money will allow NHS Scotland dental practices to purchase, renew or upgrade equipment to improve ventilation in their practices.
Mr Yousaf said: "The remobilisation of the NHS is one of our number one priorities and the Scottish Government remains committed to ensuring that NHS dental services emerge from this pandemic well-placed to care for the oral health of the population.
"This new funding is an important step in ensuring the continued remobilisation of NHS dental services and to ensure more patients can be seen safely.
"We will also continue to fund free PPE for the dental sector and, from July, we will increase it by up to 50 per cent.
"We are continuing to work with the sector to provide much needed support to fully remobilise dental services."