full article below
Complaints about poor NHS dental services rise 66% in five years
Exclusive: Standard of care, exorbitant fees and difficulty getting treatment among 1,982 issues reported in 2022-23
Record numbers of patients are complaining to the NHS Ombudsman about poor care, exorbitant fees and difficulty getting treatment from NHS dental services in England.
Mistakes by dentists mean some patients are being left in agony – in some cases unable to eat – while others are being landed with huge bills for work on their teeth.
“Poor dental care leaves patients frustrated, in pain and out of pocket,” said Rob Behrens, the parliamentary and health service ombudsman.
The number of complaints he receives every year about NHS dental services has jumped from 1,193 in 2017-18 to 1,982 in 2022-23 – a rise of 66%.
Behrens also disclosed that the proportion of complaints he upholds about NHS dentistry after an investigation has increased from 42% to 78% over the same period. That 78% figure for upheld complaints about dental services is “significantly more” than for any other area of NHS care, such as GP, hospital or mental health care, where the overall average is 60%, he said.
The ombudsman is receiving about 100 calls a week from people worried about poor treatment, their inability to access dental care on the NHS, or being removed from a practice’s list.
In one upheld complaint, a mother-to-be from Southampton had to pay £1,045 for a private root canal treatment that should have been free after her dentist did not tell her that she was exempt from fees because she was pregnant.
After the treatment, the same dentist failed to fit a crown within the 30 days the private specialist had recommended, which left the woman in pain and distress.
In another upheld complaint, a woman suffered a burn inside her lower lip while having root canal treatment at a dental surgery in Birmingham. That left her in “excruciating” pain for 13 days, unable to sleep and able to consume only liquid and soft foods such as soup and eggs.
“More and more people are feeling so dissatisfied with the service from, or access to, their NHS dental practice that they are having to reach out to organisations like ours for resolution, such as an acknowledgment of the issue, an apology or financial reimbursement,” Behrens said.
In a third case, a man ended up with one of his front teeth missing as a result of bridge work. A dental practice in Stockport told him it would cost £330 in total for a five-tooth bridge. The real price was £330 for each of the five teeth.
He agreed to have his front tooth removed because he had not been told the true cost of the treatment. As a result, he was left with no front tooth and had to have further work done, by a different practice, to repair the gap.
The findings of his audit of trends in dental complaints were “alarming but sadly unsurprising”, Behrens said. “When mistakes are made, patients can be left in pain, unable to eat, and may feel embarrassed if it leads to loss of teeth.
“Miscommunication about fees, a lack of clarity about what is available on the NHS and who is entitled to NHS care, can leave people confused and out of pocket as they pay more than they should or feel forced to seek private treatment,” he added.
Dentistry has become one of the public’s main concerns about the NHS, especially the obstacles many people face when trying to access NHS care. A BBC survey last year found that 90% of surgeries across the UK were not accepting new adult patients and 80% were not taking on children as new patients.
Healthwatch England, a watchdog, has highlighted that some patients are resorting to “DIY dentistry”, such as pulling teeth out with pliers, creating teeth out of resin, and using superglue on their gums.
Behrens recounted how he had recently met a man in Bristol who had been left without a dentist when his practice shut. “He was in terrible pain and had been trying to get an appointment. He was managing his pain with paracetamol and gels. He was eventually offered an appointment after calling 111, but it was 60 miles away, and he couldn’t attend because he is disabled and unable to travel far.”
The British Dental Association, which represents the profession, said the rise in complaints “reflects the huge pressure practices are under and the absence of any meaningful action from government”.
Eddie Crouch, the BDA’s chair, accused Rishi Sunak of failing to fulfil a pledge that he made when running for the Tory leadership to “restore” NHS dentistry through a five-point plan, which “will be activated on day one”, and which included reviewing dentists’ contracts.
An NHS spokesperson said: “NHS dental care delivered last year was up a fifth on the previous year, and while the number of dental appointments available for NHS patients is steadily increasing and the GP Patient Survey found seven out of 10 patients had a good overall experience of dental services, there is more to do to ensure all patients have a good experience.
“The NHS has introduced initial contract reform measures so dental teams can carry out even more treatments and address the inevitable backlogs that built up during the pandemic, while record numbers of dentists, dental therapists and hygienists will be trained as part of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.”