NHS dentists in Scotland: SNP needs to realise not everyone can afford to go private – Alex Cole-Hamilton

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In the index of human discomfort and suffering, dental pain has to be one of the most frustrating.

Years ago, I had a wisdom tooth that was growing in crooked and trapped by my jawbone. It was all I could think about, it put me off my food and kept me awake at night. My NHS dentist tried and failed to take it out and ended up referring me downstairs, to a private ‘implantologist’ (a confusing title for a man who pulls teeth for cash).

Everyone reading this will be familiar with a time when they’ve struggled with that kind of pain, but it’s becoming much, much harder to find help if you need to rely on NHS dental care. This isn’t dentists’ fault. They’ve been sounding the alarm for years about stagnant rates of pay for NHS work while an SNP/Green government, with its head in the sand, is unprepared to talk or listen in a meaningful way. No wonder industry representatives liken engaging with ministers to pulling teeth.

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Scottish Liberal Democrat research has revealed that toothcare waits are some of the longest in our NHS and they’re getting worse. For inpatient and day-case treatments, the longest a patient had to wait in 2022 was a staggering 146 weeks, up from an already gruelling 67 weeks in 2019. Our research also showed 11 of Scotland’s 14 territorial health boards recorded patients having to wait more than a year for treatment.

In the last four years, almost one-in-ten dentists has stopped doing NHS work entirely and the number of fees being claimed for NHS work has dropped off a cliff.

There is a grim consequence to all of this. Most gruesomely of all, my party uncovered that one in five of those who could not get an NHS appointment due to excessive waits or a lack of availability undertook a dental procedure on themselves or got someone else equally unqualified to do it. I won’t even begin to explore what that means or what work people might be carrying out on themselves.

As we came out of lockdown, there was certainly a backlog of dental work, but this problem has been brewing for years. Covid turbo-charged it, but it was always coming and it is in large part due, once again, to the dead hand of ministerial disinterest. Funding levels are simply not sufficient to make NHS work worth dentists' time and there was barely a passing mention of dentistry in the Health Secretary's failed NHS recovery plan.

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Scottish Liberal Democrats believe that toothcare, like any other form of healthcare, should be universally accessible – it cannot just be for those who can afford to pay privately. Our party was instrumental in bringing forward free dental checks in Scotland, and in pressing for new dental schools to address dentist shortages, especially in more rural areas.

Dental treatment should be universally available (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)Dental treatment should be universally available (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Dental treatment should be universally available (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

We’re are now calling for the government to rewrite its NHS Recovery Plan to give dentists the recognition they deserve and to reform funding structures so that dentists can once again take on NHS patients. Too many of our fellow Scots are struggling under a kind of pain that colours everything about their lives. The Scottish Government needs to wake up to that.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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