20 July 2020

The Oral Health Foundation is calling on health ministers to temporarily remove NHS dental charges in England.

The charity believes stopping NHS dental charges during the COVID-19 crisis will allow hundreds and thousands of people to combat dental disease, which will prevent a deterioration in health across the broadest spectrum of society.

The call to action was made in an open letter to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock MP, and has already gathered momentum.

The letter makes several cases for why dental charges in England should be temporarily paused, citing increased financial pressures, deteriorating health, and an opportunity to reconnect dental practices with their local community.

The charity is worried that the financial strain many people are feeling as a result of COVID-19, will deter many from investing in their oral health.

In the letter, the Oral Health Foundation’s chief executive, Dr Nigel Carter OBE, says: “While the government’s furlough scheme has protected around 7.5 million workers, many of these are missing out on 20% of their income.

“In normal circumstances, dental costs remain a significant barrier to attendance.  More than one-in-three (36%) adults say the costs associated with NHS dental treatment have prevented them from accessing treatment.  It is sensible to assume that at a time where more people and families are experiencing deeper financial struggles, dental visits will not be deemed a priority.

“This is specifically discriminatory to households on lower incomes, people with pre-existing medical conditions and those at higher risk of dental disease.”

As part of the recommendations in wake of COVID-19, dental practices have seen the removal of UDAs, along with recommendations to postpone aerosol generating procedures, where possible.

Dr Carter adds: “It is likely this could lead to the same patient receiving multiple courses of treatment and incurring excessive cumulative patient charges.  This places an unnecessary and unfair financial burden of those in ill-health.”

From dental practice closures on 23 March to the partial re-opening on 8 June 2020, an estimated 2.3 million NHS adult dental patients in England had appointments cancelled or postponed.  This translates to around 4.5 million less courses of treatment for adults who are expected to pay NHS dental charges.

“The cancellation of these procedures, if left untreated or unmanaged, could lead to more invasive and expensive treatments in the future, as well as health depreciation,” adds Dr Carter.

“We are concerned that a rise dental caries, periodontitis and tooth loss are all very realistic possibilities.”

In the letter, the charity states an urgent need to offer help to those people at risk of dental disease, so their conditions are suitable and timely cared for. 

By temporarily pausing NHS dental costs, the Oral Health Foundation believe it will offer an incentive for those in poorer health, needing more expensive treatment, to have their conditions treated.

The charity goes on to use the example of growing cases of mouth cancer and the importance of dental visits for early diagnosis.

The appeal to freeze NHS dental charges also highlights criteria within the new guidelines for re-opening dental practices. The charity claims that pausing NHS charges addresses a number of key issues, such as reducing the amount of time a patient spends in a waiting room, and the potential hazards caused by transferring cash.

Since re-opening, dental practices in England have been given strict new ways of working, which include a fallow period in between patients.  Many within the industry feel their practices are operating at around 25% of their normal capacity.

As dental services are only able to see and treat a reduced number of patients, the charity believes that any costs associated by pausing NHS dental charges would be a negligible expenditure for the Treasury.

“Freezing charges would be an important and clear signal that dentistry remains a fundamental part of a person’s health and wellbeing,” adds Dr Carter.  “The dental practice has key role to play in the health of local communities and this must be reflected within the government’s wider health strategy.” 

Research by the Oral Health Foundation from April shows that up to 48% of the adult population were hesitant about returning to dental practices in the wake of COVID-19.

Dr Carter says: “Since lockdown, dental practices across England have done amazing work to change the way they work, creating a safer and more comfortable environment for patients.  We believe a financial incentive in the form of a temporary pause on NHS dental charges would further help to encourage attendance.”

You can support a temporary removal of NHS dental charges in England by writing to your local MP.