Jennifer is six months pregnant with her second child and needs emergency dental treatment. She has been waiting for an appointment for nearly two years. The 38-year-old has a unique way of charting the wait – she began seeking treatment in 2020, when her first baby was still a bump. That baby is now 19 months old.
Despite her best efforts to secure an appointment, Jennifer has been unable to access the free NHS dental care to which she is entitled. She is one of hundreds of thousands of women stuck in this position.
Almost one million pregnant women and new mothers in England were denied free NHS dental treatment in the two years to March 2022, leaving women and their babies vulnerable to serious health problems.
All pregnant women across the UK are entitled to free NHS dental care while they are expecting, and for 12 months after their baby is born.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy can make gums more vulnerable to plaque, leading to inflammation and bleeding, while changes to dietary habits and morning sickness can also damage teeth. Periodontitis – gum disease – in pregnant women, is associated with an increased risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, research indicates.
But well over 900,000 expectant and new mothers were unable to access NHS dental treatment for two years, saving the Government an estimated £46m, figures shared with i show.
In the five years prior to the pandemic, an average of just over 840,000 pregnant women and new mothers completed courses of free NHS dental treatment in England annually. This figure plummeted to 245,967 in 2020/21 when the country entered lockdown, according to the data supplied by the British Dental Association (BDA).
The number of maternity claims rose to 490,298 in 2021/22, leaving an estimated 944,039 maternity appointments lost since lockdown. The true number of women denied appointments is likely to be much higher as the BDA figures only take data from NHS England into account.
Jennifer, who lives in Surrey with her fiancé and their toddler, first attempted to see a dentist while pregnant in late 2020 when the couple were based in London, but found there was “zero availability”.
It was only after their baby was born in 2021 that she decided she could not wait any longer – she was in agony and paid hundreds of pounds to go private, despite still being eligible for free NHS treatment.
“I needed a root canal which was grossly expensive,” Jennifer said.
However, the prohibitively high cost of private treatment meant she could only afford to have the first part of the procedure performed, and the root canal filling later fell out.
“When I went privately I couldn’t afford to get it crowned. It was a stopgap treatment because I was in agony,” Jennifer explained.
Over a year later she is “living with a stub in my mouth” and remains unable to access an NHS appointment in London or Surrey: “Some clinics have said they aren’t taking any NHS patients whatsoever, some have said they did have a waiting list but can’t take anyone else. I’ve told them I’m pregnant.”
Speaking with other pregnant women, Jennifer learned her friends were experiencing the same problem: “Everyone’s tried and everyone’s failed,” she added.
The BDA has calculated that being unable to provide free appointments for new and expectant mothers has saved the Government around £46m, a sum that must be reinvested in maternal and children’s dental care, the body has argued.
“Pregnant women and new mums are offered free dental care because the risks are plain and the benefits clear,” said the BDA’s chief scientific adviser Professor Justin Durham.
“Missing out on free regular dental care can have a substantial impact on both the mother and child, and the most vulnerable in society are likely to lose out the most. We need to see real urgency on reform of NHS dentistry so there is better access for all.
“Any money saved should be re-invested in tried and tested programmes to improve both maternal and child oral health,” he added.
Jennifer, who cannot afford to pay for private care again, has given up trying to find a dentist who will see her as an NHS patient and is “trying not to think about” the possible consequences.
“There’s a reason that [the NHS] gives this opportunity to pregnant women. For it to be ignored or forgotten is just really negligent to me,” she said.
“It feels like [dentists] are relying on people to give up and stump up the cash to go private.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said that Thérèse Coffey, the newly appointed Health Secretary installed by Liz Truss, “has been clear that improving access to dental care is one of her core priorities”.
“During the pandemic we provided targeted care for those most in need – including pregnant women and new mothers – and earlier this year we invested £50 million to help tackle the Covid backlogs and deliver additional appointments.
“We provide more than £3 billion in funding to dentistry each year and have recently introduced reforms to help practices see more patients,” the department added.