The number of complaints about NHS dental treatment have risen by two thirds as patients continue to face access issues.
The number of complaints the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) receives every year about NHS dental services has surged from 1,193 in 2017-18 to 1,982 in 2022-23.
Complaints refer to the increase in fees, the standard of care and difficulty accessing NHS dental services in England.
The proportion of upheld complaints has also increased. For example, in the same period it rose from 42% to 78%.
Ombudsman Rob Behrens said: ‘Poor dental care leaves patients frustrated, in pain and out of pocket. They, and dental professionals, deserve a better system that leads to quality care.
‘Many of us will have read recent headlines of people removing their own teeth and seen images of people queuing outside practices for an NHS dentist. This shows in access problems, such as appointment availability and lack of treatment being a common issue in complaints brought to us.’
This figure is higher than other areas of NHS care, including GP, hospital and mental health care. Among these areas, the overall average is 60%, the ombudsman confirmed.
The latest figures from Healthwatch reveal that attendance rates remain below pre-pandemic levels. For example, as of June this year, 43% of adults in England had seen an NHS dentist in the past 24 months compared to 52% before the pandemic.
In addition, 56% of children in England were seen by an NHS dentist in the past 12 months, falling below the pre-pandemic levels of 59%.
Overall, 18.1 million adults in England were seen for NHS dental treatment in the 24 months up to June 2023. This is 17.5% lower than the 22 million seen in the 24 months up to June 2019.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Figures from the Labour Party that suggest 70,000 patients sought dental care in emergency departments last year.
However the British Dental Association (BDA) said these are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, adding that the true extent of the access crisis goes well beyond this statistic.
Its chair, Eddie Crouch, said: ‘From GP surgeries to A&E, the crisis in NHS dentistry is piling pressure on every corner of our health service.
‘Our medical colleagues can offer pain relief or antibiotics, but these won’t cure toothache.
‘Patients in dental pain need a dentist, but any progress hinges on real reform and investment. Until then millions will have nowhere to go.’
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