How does the public perceive dentistry?

How does the public perceive dentistry?

Do you want to know more about public perception, views and experiences of dentistry? Miranda Steeples delves into the latest data published by the General Dental Council.

It’s always of great interest to us at the British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy (BSDHT) when new data becomes available, whether it be clinical or about the profession and the public’s perception of dentistry. 

The desire to understand the latter has become even more acute in the wake of COVID-19. We all understand that access became more difficult in this period. There were stories in the news about so-called DIY dentistry, and the challenges facing the NHS keep resurfacing in the public arena, reported not quite as we would like.

It was timely indeed, then, for the General Dental Council (GDC) to publish research into the public’s views and experiences of dentistry, including their thoughts on issues such as access to services and confidence in dental care.

From the BSDHT’s point of view, it’s important that the GDC undertook this study because part of the society’s remit is patient protection, and it could be argued that exploring access and barriers to receiving care is part of patient protection. 

Additionally, there’s no doubt that it’s useful and interesting for the profession to understand the challenges that patients are facing, and their attitudes towards dentistry and dental care as a whole. 

In context

Before we look at the data itself, it is important to consider the context in which the survey was undertaken. 

As I mentioned earlier, the information was gathered as we were coming out of the pandemic, when dental services were struggling to return to their normal level, both in the NHS and privately. 

It would be natural to ask at this juncture whether greater awareness of direct access might have helped. But in this instance, and even now, it is not guaranteed that it would have made a difference. 

It would very much depend on the individual practice. For example, whether they have the team members available and willing to undertake more hours of work to make more appointment times available. Also, whether sufficient treatment rooms or chairs are available.

I think the pandemic taught us that we’d been underutilising technology. Some appointments, for advice or follow up, could be done by telephone or video call. They could also be undertaken by different team members – not every patient needs to be seen by a dentist. 

So, the utilisation of the members of the oral healthcare team could improve access in a dental practice if the infrastructure and adequate team training, confidence and competence are in place. 

Patient perception

Although the survey asked a number of very valid questions, those that piqued my interest the most involved public confidence in dentistry and how often patients were prepared to visit the dental practice.

For instance, just over two thirds of respondents (67%) were confident that when people do access dental care in the UK, it is of a high quality. 

At face value, this is good news, but it really depends on how we are measuring ‘quality’. It appears that the respondents were measuring quality on whether they could access care or not, rather than considering actual care received, which may be unfair and inaccurate. 

If the measure is access to care, then this could be an area to look at, but it may be that dental practices are already at capacity and do not have the capability to offer anything more. Patients can help dental practices with this by attending booked appointments so that surgery time is not lost and wasted, which remains the eternal struggle! 

Reduced uptake

Another set of answers revealed that just over half of adults (53%) agreed that they would be likely to leave a longer gap between dental appointments in the future and 49% would go less often for routine dental appointments.

I have seen this myself with my own patients, so I cannot argue the point. As a registrant group, the BSDHT’s focus is always on preventive care and advice. When I have a patient who I would like to be seen more frequently than their finances permit, I just reinforce their home care routines and habits. 

I don’t want them to feel bad either, so I will reassure them that it is what they do at home that is most important, emphasising that they will need to be even more responsible and diligent than usual. 

I used to see a lady for dental hygiene appointments who would bring in a jam jar full of pound coins to pay for her appointments with me. She would save the coins between one appointment to the next so she could afford to come. It always really touched and humbled me that she considered it such a priority to receive care from me. 

Lack of access

To share just one more statistic here. In 2022, the most common types of dental care received were check-ups (90% of those who had dental care in the previous year having had at least one check-up) and routine preventive care such as a scale and polish (58%). 

This seems like an ironic statistic to me, because the exact same two elements were also the ones that respondents struggled to access! 

Nonetheless, it is definitely a good result for public health. It provides dental professionals with the opportunity to screen for oral diseases, including oral cancers, as well as having the chance to offer patients preventive advice. 

Missed opportunity?

It was rather disappointing that there were no questions focusing on awareness of direct access, or public perception, use or experience of it.

This could be seen as a missed opportunity. While the GDC had access to members of the public, it could have asked them about their knowledge and experiences of direct access care, as well as how they felt about having their oral healthcare managed and led by a team member who was not a dentist. 

Certainly, such answers might have helped to shape a strategy for improving patient awareness and acceptance of receiving care in this way. Perhaps another opportunity will come our way to ask such important questions. 

In the meantime, the BSDHT team remains committed to representing the interests of members and providing a consultative body for public and private organisations on all matters of dental hygiene and therapy. 

Indeed, we aim to work with other professional and regulatory groups to provide the highest level of information to our members as well as to the public.

With all that in mind, if you think we can support you in your endeavours, please don’t hesitate to get in contact at We’re here to help and love hearing from fellow oral healthcare team members. 

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