A disabled woman has claimed she was removed from the books at her NHS dental clinic after cancelling an appointment at the last minute because she was unwell, leaving her unable to access affordable treatment.
Chloe Cullen, 26, said she did not realise she had been struck off the register at her NHS dentist until she contacted them about an infected wisdom tooth, only to be told it was because she had cancelled previous appointments within 24 hours’ notice.
“I had to cancel on the day. I couldn’t give 24 hours’ notice because when you have a chronic illness, you can’t always give 24 hours’ notice as you don’t know when you’re going to get sick,” she told i.
Ms Cullen, from Lowestoft, Suffolk, felt she had no option but to fork out £375 to have a painful wisdom tooth checked at a private practice, using the money she had put aside for a wheelchair-accessible car. She is autistic and has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) – a group of rare inherited conditions that affect connective tissue.
NHS dentistry has reached “a crisis situation”, with a gradual migration towards private dentistry making it increasingly difficult to get affordable dental care, according to Dr Jeff Sherer, clinical director at the Dental Design Studio.
He said this is due to a number of factors including that young dentists are turning their backs on working in an NHS system which is “underfunded and not fit for purpose” and that fewer dentists from the EU now work in the UK following Brexit.
On top of this, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated already lengthy waiting lists as NHS clinics are being “overwhelmed” by enquiries from new patients who developed dental problems during the pandemic.
Dr Sherer told i that clinics often have no choice but to remove patients from their books to make space for other patients that need treatment.
He said there are various reasons why this happens, including because a patient has not attended for many years, or because they have not attended a number of appointments either by cancelling at short notice or failing to show up.
This places dental practices at a financial loss, he said, as NHS dentists cannot charge for missed appointments, and it leaves those in urgent need of care waiting longer.
Ms Cullen told i that the dental crisis is a “huge disadvantage” to disabled people, who are more likely to get sick and cancel appointments at the last minute.
When she contacted her dentist about an infected wisdom tooth, she was told she had been removed from the books and they did not have the capacity to re-register her.
She found this particularly “confusing” as an autistic woman, as she was removed from the list without being notified.
Ms Cullen had to resort to a private clinic, using her savings to pay for the treatment she needed to stop the pain. The £375 bill took a chunk out of the money she was keeping aside to buy a car big enough to fit her wheelchair and a hoist in the boot.
“I’m on benefits and Universal Credit, I can’t afford to be going private,” she said.
Thousands of people in the UK are struggling to find NHS dental appointments and treatment, with many unable to afford private clinics.
“The cost of living is rising sharply, and people should not have to choose between living costs and caring for their teeth,” said Neil Carmichael, Chair of the Association of Dental Groups (ADG) and former Conservative MP for Stroud.
New research by strategic insight agency Opinium has revealed that two in five Britons have not been to the dentist in over a year, with one in five saying this was due to not being able to afford an appointment.
The ADG is calling for accessible dental care for people across the country, after their recent report singled out “dental deserts” in some parts of the UK, where small numbers of NHS dentists serve large segments of the population.
The research found NHS dentistry is facing a mass exodus, with 2,000 fewer dentists undertaking work for the National Health Service this year, potentially leaving four million people without access to affordable dental care.
“It is now harder than ever to get access to dental care in this country and the government’s slow progress on NHS contract reform is making the situation worse,” said Mr Carmichael.
Since 2010, the Department for Health and Social Care and the NHS have been testing alternative and amended dental care contracts.
Currently, NHS dentists are paid a set amount for treatments, regardless of how many teeth are treated, meaning they receive the same pay for one extraction as for three extractions or a root canal and two fillings.
There is a strong incentive to undertake private work instead, as dentists are paid separately for each individual treatment.
“The NHS is no longer viable for dentists. I think it’s bubbled over in the past year but it’s been a long time coming,” said Sejal Bhansali, a dentist and Chair of the Conservative Dentists.
“Some people see dentists as greedy dentists who just want to go private and not work for the NHS but that’s not the case. It’s because the contract is not fit for purpose,” she added.
She has found that patients in her clinic have become increasingly concerned about rising costs over the past few months, predicting that “it’s only going to get worse”.
“People are just tending to go for the things that they need to get done rather than anything else,” she added, explaining that regular check ups are not a priority for many due to the lasting impact of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis.
“People’s dental health doesn’t become high on the agenda unless they’re in pain,” she said.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The NHS commits around £3 billion to dentistry each year, and earlier his year we delivered an additional £50 million to fund up to 350,000 extra dental appointments.”