Taking the pulse

The NHS needs to make a clear statement over what it will and what it won’t provide, Michael Watson says.

Kevin Lewis described the Annual Conference of Local Dental Committees as providing ‘a useful finger on the pulse’ of NHS dentistry.

So a couple of weeks ago I was on my way to Stansted airport to Belfast to observe what Kevin described as ‘the underlying malaise and lowered sense of self-worth’ of the profession.

Our genial host, the chairman, was Joe Hendron, Belfast born, but qualified at Leeds, who made the decision to practice in Wakefield.

He had arranged a great conference in this vibrant, modern and welcoming city.


Now it was back in the 1980s, over 30 years ago, when I first started visiting the event, in those days always held in London.

Some of the faces were familiar from back then but most were, as Joe described, more representative of the whole profession, as he welcomed ‘more female delegates and many younger faces’.

But how much had themes and ideas changed over the years?

Back then there were complaints about lack of money, so not a lot of change there.

We were then discussing a proposed new contract due to be introduced, against the wishes of the profession, in 1990.

This year we currently expect a new contract to start being rolled out in 2020, according to health minister, Steve Brine.

The prototypes and a new contract dominated the conference.

Motions, all passed overwhelmingly, called on the Government ‘to reinvigorate the reform process’, another pointing out the current contract ‘disproportionately fails patients in areas of deprivation’.

Not enough money

But it was Joe Hendron’s speech at the dinner that expressed what many had been saying.

Earlier this year he withdrew his practice from the prototypes, having been in the reform process for six years.

He said: ‘Six years ago I had a dream.

‘A dream of what just might be possible in the brave new world of NHS dentistry under the pilots.’

The reality was, as his then practice manager told him last September: ‘The dentists are at their wits end and nurses are threatening to leave.

‘Long-term patients are complaining every day at how long they have to wait for appointments.’

The access targets set by NHS England were, in his view, excessive and unachievable, with a financial penalty attached.

But when he raised this concern at a meeting last year he was told: ‘This is the only show in town – take it or leave it.’

Pilots are set up to determine not only what will work, but what won’t work.

And by all I heard in Belfast the current prototypes are not working, unless there is some radical rethinking.

Top of the list needs to be a clear statement of what the NHS will provide and what it will not.

There is not enough money to give everybody everything they would like – indeed there never was, as Bevan discovered when he brought in the NHS 70 years ago.

Read more from Michael Watson:

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