Mothers suffer from NHS dental funding failures

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Government claims about NHS dental availability are deceptive, leaving mothers untreated

More than a million mothers in the UK are missing out on free dental care owing to funding flaws within the National Health Service. (Image: HenadziPechan/Shutterstock)

LONDON, UK: Throughout their pregnancy and for the first year after giving birth, mothers in the UK are entitled to free dental care through the National Health Service (NHS). However, recent debates in Parliament regarding potential extensions of these benefits to other vulnerable groups, such as cancer patients, have highlighted significant gaps in the system, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid these discussions, the British Dental Association (BDA) has brought to light concerning statistics on the decline in dental care access for new mothers in a press release.

Prior to the pandemic, the NHS handled over 840,000 maternity claims for dental care per year. These numbers dramatically decreased to 245,967 in the 2020–21 period, slightly recovered to 490,298 in 2021–22 and reached 542,353 by 2022–23, indicating a loss of estimated 1.25 million maternity dental appointments since the onset of the pandemic. This drop is alarming, considering the heightened dental risks associated with pregnancy caused by hormonal changes that increase gingival sensitivity and vulnerability to plaque. Additionally, changes in dietary habits and morning sickness during pregnancy can exacerbate deterioration of oral health.

Commenting on the situation, BDA Chair Dr Eddie Crouch emphasised the need for a substantial overhaul rather than superficial changes, saying, “Many patients have a strong claim for free NHS dentistry, but sadly those who already have it are seeing few benefits.”

The implications of these missed appointments extend beyond periodontal health, as research suggests that infections resulting from dental problems can lead to severe adverse effects for both mother and child. Dr Crouch commented further: “Pregnant women and new mums are eligible because of the material risk to their teeth and gums. But 1.25 million have missed out, and there’s little sign of recovery.”

The BDA has criticised the funding mechanisms for NHS dentistry, arguing that the reliance on charges is inappropriate and that many groups would justifiably qualify for exemptions. Recent data also indicates that there simply are not enough NHS dentistry resources to meet the needs of all patients.

“Many patients have a strong claim for free NHS dentistry, but sadly those who already have it are seeing few benefits.”—Dr Eddie Crouch

The government’s recent attempt to address these issues with a recovery plan for NHS dentistry was met with significant scepticism by the dental community. The BDA declared the recovery plan as “unworthy of the title”. A poll conducted by the BDA among dentists in England revealed that only 3% believe the plan would lead to their practice accommodating more NHS patients. Worse, 43% anticipated the plan would result in even fewer NHS patients at their practices, and only 1% of respondents felt the plan could achieve the government’s goal of providing dental care to all in need.

To further complicate the issue, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care the Right Honourable Victoria Atkins corrected the record in Parliament after mistakenly claiming the plan was supported by £200 million (€234 million)* in “new” money when in fact the plan reallocates underspends of the existing £3 billion budget—a budget that has seen negligible increases over the past decade. The government also claimed that 500 practices are now accepting new patients owing to this funding, but this was met with disbelief. It appears that, rather than indicating yes or no regarding whether they are taking new patients, NHS practices are now showing that they can take new patients “when availability allows”. According to Dr Crouch, “Government needs to park the spin, and deliver a serious plan to restore access to millions.”

Editorial note:

* Calculated on the OANDA platform on 7 February 2024.

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