The future of NHS dentistry is now in doubt as a growing number of NHS practice owners report problems filling core clinical vacancies, according to new data from the BDA.
Figures from a national survey of practice owners indicate 75% of NHS practice owners in England struggled to fill vacancies last year – rising to 84% among those with the highest NHS commitments. Figures have risen markedly in recent years, up from just 50% in 2016, and rising to 68% in 2017.
Figures reflect growing disillusionment with England's unreformed and underfunded NHS dental system, with levels of NHS commitment now a key driver of low morale and low job satisfaction according to BDA surveys.
The recruitment crisis is having major knock-on effects on patient access, with official sites now directing patients to undertake epic journeys to get an appointment. The NHS.uk service is currently pointing new adult patients in Barrow-in-Furness to the nearest available practice in Whitehaven, a round trip of 90 miles. BDA analysis shows new patients across England are looking at round trips of over 40 miles, with some reliant on public transport facing over 4 hours in transit.
A practice in Barrow has reported permanent vacancies left unfilled for 5 years, and is operating at quarter capacity, and a leading recruitment agency has told the BDA that they have been unable to fill any posts advertised across Cumbria in the past 12 months. Even in London agencies have reported being unable to recruit NHS dentists with offers of golden handshakes. Leading corporate providers Bupa and mydentist have attributed a spate of recent closures to acute recruitment problems.
59% of NHS dentists responding to recent BDA surveys reported plans to leave the service or scale down commitment in the next 5 years, rising to 67% among those doing the most NHS work. Dentist leaders say that failure to meaningfully reform the target-driven system in England, and arrest a 35% real-terms collapse in practitioner incomes is threatening recruitment, retention and with it the long-term sustainability of the service.
This week Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health Baroness Blackwood told parliament that "there is a level of concern about recruitment and retaining dentists". NHS England have previously cited 'record breaking' numbers of NHS dentists, but official measures capture headcount and not time committed to NHS practice, which is in steady decline.
Official data has shown over 1 million new adult patients tried and failed to secure access to NHS dental services last year.
BDA Vice Chair Eddie Crouch said:
"Patients are losing out because ministers wrongly assume NHS dentistry's survival is a forgone conclusion.
"The facts are if NHS practices can't fill vacancies then we can't treat NHS patients. Recruitment and retention are key, and a cash-strapped system that puts government targets ahead of patient care is now squeezing the workforce on both sides.
"Many patients will travel further or wait longer for care until this government stops punishing colleagues who commit themselves to the NHS."