As the Conservative Party gathers in Manchester a major nationwide survey indicates that almost 58% of the UK's NHS dentists are planning on turning away from NHS dentistry in the next five years.
Responses to a British Dental Association (BDA) survey of General Dental Practitioners captured those intending to increase private work, work overseas, retire or move out of dentistry to another sector.
Results highlight that over half (53%) of young and newly qualified NHS dentists (aged under 35) intend on leaving the NHS in the same period, raising questions about the sustainability of the service.
Nearly 10% of these young NHS dentists state they intend to leave dentistry entirely, with similar numbers stating they intend to move to work overseas. 42% plan refocusing on private dentistry. Less than 1 in 6 (16%) of these young dentists estimate they will be able to own a practice within the next 5 years. Practice ownership, once the traditional career path for young NHS dentists has ceased to be an option for many amid a long-term decline in earnings, and the growth of chain 'corporate' dentistry firms.
Recent data from NHS Digital has shown dentists in England and Wales have experienced a nearly 35% fall in real income over last decade, with the situation showing no signs of recovery. Young dentists have seen their average real income fall by £20,000 as student debt levels have topped £70,000.
This survey follows recent BBC research highlighting an 'emerging crisis' with NHS dentistry in England. The UK government has failed to honour commitments made since 2010 to offer a decisive break from the discredited 2006 dental contract which sets quotas on patient numbers. Dentists are penalised if they don't hit targets for activity but are unable to treat extra patients if they want to do more.
Commenting on the survey Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen, the BDA's Chair of General Dental Practice said:
"It is a tragedy that a decade of underfunding and failure to deliver meaningful reform now risk shutting off the pipeline of NHS dentists.
"Government has made NHS high street practice so unattractive the next generation are now looking to the exit. These young dentists are the backbone of the dental workforce, and losing them at the start of their careers raises existential questions about the future of the service.
"A suffocating contract system tells dentists from day one that government targets matter more than improving the oral health of their patients. We urgently require a new system that recognizes and rewards prevention.
"The traditional career path for high street NHS dentists has gone, and until government can offer a viable alternative this brain drain will continue.
"Practices across the UK are already reporting major recruitment problems. This is a crisis made in Westminster, and Westminster must respond."
Harman Chahal is Chair of the BDA's Young Dentists Committee. Formerly an NHS associate in a high needs area of Birmingham, he decided to leave NHS practice back in April. Harman added:
"Young NHS dentists are being asked to make impossible choices. They are offered no reward for going above and beyond, just the constant threat of penalties for not hitting government targets.
"We have a system that limits our ability to care for those who need us most while forcing us to explain the mechanics of the payment system to patients who expect NHS care to be free at the point of use.
"The dental contract has reduced our patients to a line in a spreadsheet. This conveyor belt model of care has decisively failed both our patients and the young dentists on whom the future of the service depends."