The British Dental Association (BDA) has warned that dentists face an uphill struggle to restore services unless the government is willing to support costs for new equipment that could radically expand patient access, as the number of missed appointments due to the lockdown exceeds 14 million.
Official data on activity indicates treatments delivered by National Health Service (NHS) dental services in England are at a quarter of pre-pandemic levels and have only begun to inch above typical demand for urgent care, which is currently receiving priority, the BDA said. More than 14.5 million fewer treatments have been delivered in 2020 compared to the same period last year.
Dentists have been required to maintain 60-minute windows between patients after aerosol-generating procedures (AGPs) to minimize risks of viral transmission, contributing to the fall in patient volume, the BDA said.
Recent recommendations by the Scottish Dental Clinical Effectiveness Programme, which are widely anticipated to inform official guidance across the United Kingdom, could reduce this fallow period to as little as 10 minutes where dentists can demonstrate a sufficient number of air changes per hour in their operatories.
The BDA has stressed that if both NHS and private practices alike are required to make changes to adhere to new official advice, the government will need to provide financial support.
Progress will require many of the UK’s 12,000 practices to undergo an on-site survey by ventilation engineers, the BDA said. With practices already struggling to remain financially sustainable, the BDA has stressed the government must show willingness to underwrite this work and offer commitments for capital funding for necessary equipment.
Practices likely will require mechanical ventilation fitted internally or externally with ducting as required, the BDA said, with those with operatories without natural ventilation like windows facing significant challenges.
Also, it has been more than a decade since dental services in England have received any form of direct capital investment, the BDA said. Corporate provider MyDentist recently announced a £1.25 million fund to reduce fallow time to 20 minutes in its 600 practices.
The BDA expects many patients with untreated decay to require more extensive and costly interventions as a result of limited access to dental services. Oral cancers, which kill more Britons each year than car accidents, also are going undetected in the absence of routine dental checkups, the BDA said.
“Dentists are facing an uphill struggle to restore services and get on top of an ever-growing backlog. New rules could offer some hope, but only if government is willing to show leadership. If practices are going to get more patients back through their doors, it will hinge on support to invest in new kit,” said BDA chair Eddie Crouch.
“Until we see commitments, dentists will be fighting a losing battle, as early signs of decay are missed, and oral cancers go undetected,” Crouch said.