NHS dentistry is experiencing a crisis that has been worsening over time. There have been multiple reports of the public finding it difficult to access NHS dental care and resorting to improvised home dentistry. These struggles may also be reflected in the number of calls to NHS 111, which is a free phone and online service that provides 24/7 access to advice for people with urgent health needs and directs them to the appropriate help. It can recommend that callers contact various health services, including dental practitioners, and could give an indication of the need for dental services.
At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, there was a notable increase in the number of calls received by NHS 111. At a time when movement and patient access to dental care were restricted, NHS 111 played a crucial role in directing people with medical problems to the appropriate health service without risking exposure to Covid-19.
The number of calls where NHS 111 recommended the caller to seek a dental service more than doubled between March and May 2020. Since then (until March this year), the numbers of dental service recommendations have decreased slightly, but remain higher than they were before the pandemic. Importantly, while dental recommendations before the pandemic made up 3.6% of the total number of recommendations, that figure increased to as high as 7% last year – showing a greater level of need. This poses a problem across the country, in particular for areas known as “dental deserts” where no practices are accepting new NHS patients.
The same trend of more dental recommendations from NHS 111 is seen across all regions of England, with the South West and Midlands showing the highest increase in NHS 111 callers recommended to seek a dental service. Could the lack of access to NHS dental care further widen geographic inequalities in oral health and have a greater impact on people living with the highest levels of deprivation?
The House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee recently released a report calling for an “urgent and fundamental reform of NHS dentistry”. It is unclear yet if the expected NHS dental recovery plan will include the recommendations made by the committee. The most recent NHS 111 data indicates that demand for dental care is still at higher levels than before the pandemic, providing further evidence for the need for urgent NHS dental reform.
Ogbebor O (2023) 'The rise in dental service recommendations from NHS 111'. Chart of the week, Nuffield Trust.