Only Half of All British Adults Visit Their Dentist

Richard Gawel


England’s National Health Service (NHS) reports that only 51.7%, or 22.1 million, of the nation’s adults have seen a dentist in the 2 years before June 2016. Also, just 57.9%, or 6.7 million, of the nation’s children haven’t had a checkup in the 12 months leading up to June 2016, despite National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommendations that they see a dentist at least once a year.

“When half of adults and nearly 5 million children fail to see the dentist, ministers have some very serious questions to answer,” said Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen, chair of general dental practice at the British Dental Association (BDA). “This isn’t patient apathy. This is what you get when governments treat oral health as an optional extra.”

According to the NHS, 39.7 million courses of treatment were delivered in 2015-2016, which is a 0.2% increase over 2014-2015’s totals. Excluding examinations, scaling and polishing were the most frequent procedures delivered to adults, with 13.0 million courses of treatment and 45.6% of all clinical treatments in 2015-2016.

Also excluding examinations, children were most likely to receive a fluoride varnish treatment, with 4.1 million delivered in 2015-2016 for a 20.3% increase over 2014-2015’s totals. Finally, 24,089 dentists performed NHS activity in 2015 and 2016, which is a 0.6% increase. But despite these figures, there are concerns.

“Whilst numbers of children attending are increasing, it is actually a fail if looked at as a percentage of population,” said Claire Stevens, a consultant in pediatric dentistry at Central Manchester Hospitals NHS Trust. “The figure is worryingly low because children’s teeth are growing fast, and regular visits to a dental practice are essential throughout childhood.”

Patient charges have hit £740 (about $960 million), or 5% more than last year. The BDA says that these charges are driving about 600,000 people a year or more than 11,000 a week to general practitioners instead of dentists for treatment, costing the NHS more than £26 million (about $33.7 million) a year.

“Ministers insist the NHS will remain free at the point of use, but keep ramping up England’s dental charges. Increasingly, they look like a tax on health, a substitute for adequate government investment that drives down demand from patients who need us most,” said Overgaard-Nielsen.

In response to some of these challenges, Public Health England has launched the Children’s Oral Health Improvement Programme Board. Its Action Plan for 2016 through 2020 includes several goals, including advocating for oral health, driving evidence-based training, publishing vital data, evidence-based treatment, and better communication.

“What we now need to see is how the organizations that carry responsibility for both policy and for the purse-strings work together to support initiatives at the local level,” said Stevens. “Will they all work collaboratively, for instance, to ensure that the Smile4Life Prevention initiative is integrated with the work of the new board?”

The NHS Smile4Life campaign will launch next year to encourage the public to treat dental health as a lifelong issue. It will advocate more use of fluoride varnishes in schools and free toothbrushes for children. NHS Chief Dental Officer Sara Hurley also has suggested that not everyone needs to see a dentist every 6 months, but instead should visit on a schedule best suited to each individual.

“We need a concerted effort to get parents, health professionals, and government on the same page,” said Overgaard-Nielsen.

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