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LONDON, UK: In an effort to return to business as usual, NHS England has recently announced that it has raised the activity targets of all National Health Service (NHS) primary care dental contract holders to the maximum of 100%. Valid starting from 1 July, the new targets have left many dental professionals distraught given that thousands of NHS dentistry practices are still struggling to restore their services in light of COVID-19.
To increase patient access, dental practices in England have had to reach 95% of their pre-pandemic activity or face financial penalties since 1 April. Now, three months later, dental professionals are required to return to normal contracting arrangements and deliver 100% of their contracted activity for the second quarter of the financial year. However, not everyone is happy with the decision. For example, the British Dental Association (BDA) believes that the imposed targets do not reflect the data emerging from the front line, but are “driven by treasury diktats”.
“Imposing fanciful targets is easy for ministers,” Dr Shawn Charlwood, chair of the BDA’s General Dental Practice Committee, said in a press release. “The harder but necessary path demands real reform and fair funding,” he asserted.
On top of activity targets that are difficult to reach, England has been experiencing extremely high COVID-19 infection rates, which has greatly impacted workforce availability and patient cancellations. According to recent data published by the Office for National Statistics, 1.7 million people across the UK were estimated to have had the virus between 13 and 18 June, which is 23% higher than in the previous week and 43% higher than in the first week of June. In light of the numbers, the new activity targets will be difficult to reach, since dental practices are continuing to operate under reduced capacity and are in dire need of government support.
“No other UK nation has adopted such an inflexible, punitive approach,” the BDA wrote in the press release. It believes that this “will leave a growing number of NHS practices facing financial penalties for failure to hit targets, further destabilising an already fragile delivery model”.
The UK government is still expected to introduce some small changes to the current contract before parliament’s summer recess, but formal negotiations on fundamental reform are yet to be discussed, the BDA noted.
The imminent death of NHS dentistry
In June, Dental Tribune International reported on a survey in which almost half of the surveyed dentists reported that they had reduced their NHS commitment since the beginning of the pandemic. The worrying findings were of particular concern to the BDA, and the organisation proclaimed the impending death of NHS dentistry unless immediate and drastic action is taken by the government.
According to the BDA, approximately 3,000 UK dentists have ceased providing NHS dental services since the beginning of the pandemic, and even more dentists have reduced their NHS commitment over the same period. Among the factors that have accelerated the decline in dental services are staffing shortages, stress and burn-out among dentists.