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A comprehensive national children's oral health strategy is paramount

Margaret Greenwood MP
February 1, 2024

NHS dentistry in England is “plagued with a troubling array of problems, from poor and worsening access to dentists, to a dysfunctional financing regime and problems in attracting dentists to carry out NHS work.”

That is according to the influential Nuffield Trust think tank, which has also described NHS dentistry as being at its most perilous point in its 75-year history.

Many people are finding it impossible to get an appointment when they need one, and there are large parts of the country where no practice is taking on NHS patients. The people who are suffering as a result include children who are living with pain and are in desperate need of treatment.

It is a matter of extreme concern that recent data from Healthwatch indicates that one in 10 people in England ended up paying for private dental treatment in the last 12 months because they could not find an NHS dentist.

Numerous constituents have written to me to relay their experiences.

One, who is a dentist, contacted me recently to say that, in their opinion, “NHS dentistry is reaching the end of the road.”

Another simply asked: “Do we have a National Health Service or do we not?”

A third said that they found the situation “tragic” and that they were “concerned for (their) children’s dental health.”

Children are among those worst affected by this crisis.

Tooth decay is one of the most common causes of hospital admission in young children, despite the fact that it is a largely preventable disease.

Children are among those worst affected by this crisis. Quote

Government statistics show that, as of 2022, 29.3% of five year-olds in England experienced enamel and/or dentinal decay, with notable regional disparities, ranging from 23.3% in the South West to 38.7% in the North West.

Children living in the most deprived areas of the country were almost three times as likely to have experience of dentinal decay as those living in the least deprived areas.

The shortage of specialist paediatric dentists is surely impacting on children's health.

According to the latest data from NHS England, there are only 174 paediatric dentists working in England.

These professionals provide comprehensive oral healthcare for children and adolescents, including those with special care needs.

They undergo three years of additional specialist training, gaining expertise in child psychology, growth and development, pharmacology, pathology and oral diseases, along with training in advanced diagnostic and surgical procedures.

Their role in ensuring that children can enjoy a healthy start in life is hugely important.

It is extremely disappointing, therefore, that the government-backed NHS Long Term Workforce Plan makes no specific reference to specialist paediatric dentistry.

Timely access to dental care is a fundamental aspect of children's health and wellbeing, but too many are missing out on this.

Poor oral health in children can lead to school absenteeism and, as the government has acknowledged, it can cause pain and infection and affect a child’s ability to eat, smile and socialise.

Ministers need to urgently address the shortage of specialist paediatric dentists and improve accessibility to dental care for all children.

Labour has come forward with a plan to rescue NHS dentistry.

That plan includes the provision of an extra 700,000 urgent dental appointments, incentives for new dentists to work in areas with the greatest need so that those who need an appointment are able to get one, and reform of the NHS dental contract.

Another aspect of the plan is the introduction of supervised toothbrushing in schools for 3-5 year olds, targeted at the areas with highest childhood tooth decay.

We have heard ministers say that they want everyone who needs an NHS dentist to be able to access one, but these are hollow words since they do not have a plan to make that a reality.

The problems that we are seeing are a result of 14 years of neglect by the Conservatives. They should adopt Labour’s ideas as a matter of urgency.

We also need the government to come forward with a comprehensive national children’s oral health strategy to secure a healthier future for children in England.

That strategy should be led by the Department of Health and Social Care. In developing it, there should be collaboration with other government departments and a wide range of stakeholders, including specialist paediatric dentists.

It should commit to investing in oral health promotion initiatives, outline clear goals to reduce waiting times and focus on targeted preventative measures, early intervention and improved access to high-quality dental care for all children.

1 2023 11 09 161405 ijlf

Margaret Greenwood is the Labour MP for Wirral West.

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