New dentists could be forced to work in the NHS to tackle England’s ‘dental deserts’

Dental graduates in England could be forced to work in the NHS to tackle the access crisis leaving millions struggling to get their teeth fixed.

Under the Government’s plan, they would have to do NHS work for ‘several years’ after leaving university or face repayment of part of the £200,000 cost of their training.

Victoria Atkins, the Health Secretary, said it was “only right” for graduates to spend the early years of their careers treating NHS patients so that more people were seen more quickly.

A decline in the number of dentists doing NHS work has contributed to the creation of ‘dental deserts’, where patients cannot receive treatment, and has led some people to turn to ‘do-it-yourself dentistry’ including pulling their own teeth.

However, the British Dental Association (BDA), which represents dentists, claimed ministers were trying to “tie graduates into a service that is on the verge of collapse” and said the plan would do little to improve access to NHS care.

Atkins said: “Taxpayers invest significantly in the training of dentists, so it is only right to expect dental graduates to work in the NHS once they complete their training.”

While more than 35,000 dentists in England are registered with the General Dental Council, only around two-thirds of them – 24,151 – provided NHS-funded dental care in the period 2022-2023. That was 121 fewer than those who did so a year earlier and 533 fewer than in 2019-2020.

“This means that almost a third of registered dentists do not contribute to NHS dentistry and may work exclusively in private practice,” the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

An eight-week public consultation on the plan, which the DHSC is launching on Thursday, asks “whether newly qualified dentists should commit to providing a minimum amount of NHS dental care for a minimum number of years after graduating, and whether they have to pay back.” some of the government funding invested in their education if they don’t”.

Eddie Crouch, chairman of the BDA, said: “Almost all British graduates start their careers in the NHS, meaning the gains in access would be negligible.

“The government plans to tie graduates to a service that is on the verge of collapse. You have to wonder why experienced colleagues leave.”

According to the study, only 43% of adults in England have seen a dentist in the two years to the end of June 2023. most recent official figures – down from the 52% who did so before Covid struck in 2020.

Similarly, 53% of children and young people saw a dentist in the year to the end of June 2023, down from the 59% who did so before the pandemic.

The proposed ‘link’ is part of a government drive to expand access to NHS dental care, which has become an issue of enormous public frustration and political concern.

Louise Ansari, the chief executive of patient champion Healthwatch England, said: “People in every corner of England are struggling to get the dental treatment they need when they need it.

“NHS dentistry remains the second most common problem people report to Healthwatch (after access to GPs), with many living in pain, while some turn to private care.”