People pulling out their own teeth, children left in agony and thousands lingering on the waiting list of just one dentistry practice – that’s the stark reality of life in a dental desert.
Today, The Northern Echo reveals how there are towns and villages across our region with not a single dentist open to new NHS patients.
Read more: The North East’s ‘dental deserts’ revealed
Darlington is one of a growing number of towns where people in need of routine dental care could be left with nowhere to turn.
The town has a population of more than 100,000 people – but the NHS Find a Dentist service flags up no dental practices with availability for patients without a referral.
Residents struggling to access both routine and urgent dentistry care have bombarded its politicians, begging for help – the town’s MP, Peter Gibson, told Parliament last week that he’d been contacted by dozens of people this year alone.
Joanne Dickinson was one of them. Her 11-year-old son, Liam, passed out at school and injured his face so badly he required significant dental work and was left in agony.
But the family’s dentist said Liam was no longer on their lists – “we’d never missed an appointment and there was no notification,” Ms Dickinson said.
“I’d phoned during the pandemic for an appointment and was told they weren’t seeing anybody, which was fair enough.
“But after the accident, we were told we were just no longer on their list.”
Read more: Mapped: Here’s where you CAN get a dentist
Ms Dickinson frantically called all the dentists she could, to be confronted with years-long waiting lists and zero availability. In the end, she paid more than £400 to have her son privately treated – “money we just don’t have”, she said.
More than a year later, she’s still searching for dental care for her family.
Dentists reducing the NHS services they provide is a known issue and one faced by another Darlington man, Martin Landers.
Mr Landers was also unexpectedly removed from his practice’s register and has been struggling to access routine dental appointments since.
Darlington’s MP Peter Gibson
MP Peter Gibson responded to concerns from some residents by telling them to contact 111 – but, Mr Landers said, that service couldn’t assist him.
“Because I wasn’t bleeding profusely or in severe pain, they couldn’t help me,” he said.
“There is just nowhere to go.”
Darlington Labour councillors Chris McEwan and Nick Wallis recently asked residents for their experiences of dental care in the town – and were inundated with responses.
One man said he’d been on one waiting list for more than a year, adding: “I was unable to get any appointments even though my tooth was very loose, I couldn’t eat properly and as a diabetic, that was not good.
“I ended up taking two teeth out myself.”
Cllr Wallis said: “It’s an intolerable situation and it’s crucial that we begin to understand how it can be turned around.
“There were so many personal experiences of real hardship, pain, suffering and just despair.
“There’s simply a brick wall up for many when it comes to NHS dental treatment.”
Cllr Chris McEwan
Cllr McEwan said the problem had been “bubbling for years” but that the pandemic had exacerbated the issue.
He added: “It’s not just the acute stuff that’s a worry – if you’re not getting check-ups and accessing a dentist as a child, it could have implications for long-term health.”
Read more: What politicians said about the region’s dentist shortage
Peter Gibson took Darlington’s concerns to a Parliamentary debate on NHS dentistry earlier this month.
He said there were severe shortcomings in the current system of dental contracts and suggested some dentists no longer found it financially viable to provide NHS dental care – “resulting in providers not taking on NHS patients, or sometimes handing back NHS contracts and focusing on private dental care.”