Building a modern workforce for UK dentistry

Building a modern workforce for UK dentistry

Recruitment is at the heart of the dental workforce crisis, argues Neil Carmichael, but what is the solution?

UK dentistry is in a state of crisis. Horror stories of pensioners pulling out their own teeth with garden pliers or children admitted to hospital in their thousands hit our headlines on a weekly basis.

Recruitment of dental practitioners, or rather the lack of, lies at the heart of the problem.

We are one of the richest countries in the Europe and yet Bulgaria and Poland are the only EU countries with fewer dentists per 1,000 people. In parts of the UK, including West Norfolk and North Lincolnshire, there are only 34 registered dentists per 100,000 people – lower than anywhere else in Europe.

Plummeting numbers of dentists, dental hygienists and dental therapists have drained NHS, private and community services of resources up and down the country. But of course, this has hit areas of social and economic deprivation the hardest.

The urgency to service these so-called ‘dental deserts’ is reflected in the current government’s offer of £20,000 to dentists willing to move to areas in most desperate need. This is a noble, but ultimately redundant plan, given that we don’t have adequate number of dentists to incentivise in the first place.

What is the solution to the workforce crisis?

There are several solutions – both short-term and long-term – to this our recruitment crisis. And a few fixes could have wide-reaching impact. Just 1,000 extra dentists would create 750,000 additional appointments.

1. Overseas registration exam

The incoming government must use every tool at its disposal to encourage the General Dental Council (GDC) to increase the frequency of the Overseas Registration Exam (the qualification which grants overseas dentist the papers to practise here). They should allow it to be taken online, and improve processing times for new applicants.

At present, there are 2,000 highly qualified foreign dentists, who could be filling the gap in our services tomorrow, stuck in a pitifully long backlog.

2. Provisional registration

The GDC must also pursue the government’s proposed system of ‘provisional registration’ for overseas-qualified dentists. This would allow those who have not yet met the requirements of full registration to practise in any dental setting, under supervision.

3. New dental schools

The government must expand the output of dental schools and build a new one altogether, securing the future of dental services with year on, year out classes of rigorously trained homegrown talent.

4. Mutual recognition

The government also needs to work with the GDC to develop new mutual recognition agreements with other countries. India, for example, produces an excess of high quality, English-speaking dentists (more than 300,000 every year). Around 75% of these said in a recent survey that they were interested in working in the UK.

Full scale change

Though discussions regarding the UK’s dentistry crisis are often limited to dentists – even from within the profession itself – we need full scale change across the whole of the industry in order to drive real change, which these solutions reflect.

While respecting institutions, we also need to be flexible and courageous enough to update them where necessary. This applies to agencies in the sector, and the General Dental Council itself.

UK dentistry may be in crisis right now, but it has huge opportunities to grow and become successful once again. Whoever wins the election on 4 July, policy-makers and politicians must look at the bigger picture rather than be consumed by incrementalism and detail.

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This article is sponsored by the Association of Dental Groups.

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