A former NHS dental helpline worker has exposed how Devon and Cornwall’s dentistry crisis has hit the point where 78,000 people are currently on the waiting list, with some people waiting more than three years for a dentist.
Those on the list are said to include children, elderly people and people with learning disabilities.
Katie Featherstone, 29, who used to lived in Exeter and worked for Devon Doctors on its Access Dental Helpline up until the end of May, has raised concerns in a letter to Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw.
She told how the crisis is particularly bad in Exeter, and on a daily basis she dealt with patients struggling to deal with excruciating pain, with some even feeling suicidal.
It has prompted Mr Bradshaw to call for urgent action to reduce the average waiting time of two years for a dentist, and to get the government to acknowledge there is a crisis.
NHS England has apologised to anyone who has experienced a delay, and says it is reviewing its urgent care capacity.
Katie, who has exposed what she experienced while working on the helpline because she feels it is her ‘duty’ to highlight her concerns, said: “On the emergency dental phone-lines, short emergency appointments and temporary fixes are arranged for people who are not registered with a dentist – or at the weekends when dental practices are closed for everyone.
“We never had anywhere near enough emergency appointments for the people who needed them, and recently the situation in Exeter seems to be particularly bad. Only around 10 emergency appointments are available in Exeter each day, and once these are used we have to tell people that they must call back at 8am the next morning.
“People queue on the phonelines at 8am, and although they have hired a lot more staff recently, many people still have to wait 45 minutes just to be let down. Sometimes people have to do this for three or four days in a row, or even more, before an appointment can be arranged.
“Vulnerable people are always tried to be fitted in first, so a man in his thirties, for example, is likely to have to wait several days.”
For Katie, she says it was difficult hearing the pain people were having to endure and that she also suffered verbal abuse by those who had become so frustrated by being left in agony.
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Katie, who has returned back to her previous job in the Icelandic Highlands where she is a mountain hut warden, said: “I spent all day speaking to people who had terrible toothache, who had taken all the painkillers which they were allowed and were still in pain, or had an infection which was swelling their face.
“There is no help for them while they wait for the chance to get an appointment, and all I could suggest to them was to visit a pharmacy, and to only go to A&E if the swelling got so bad that it started to restrict their swallowing, breathing or eyesight.
“People would cry on the phone, get angry and swear at me, and just ask helplessly what they are supposed to do in the meantime? It was not at all unusual for people to talk about suicide, and we would have to pass them over to the 111 service.”
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Katie believes that although a shortage of dentists in the region has been a problem long before the coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19 has made the situation more severe, and that urgent funding is needed to address the problem.
She said: “This situation should not be happening in a developed country. Although Covid has made it worse, there were already at least 60,000 people on the waiting list when I started last June.
“NHS dental is in crisis in the South West, and many people cannot afford to go private. We need funding for more emergency appointments. We need funding to encourage existing dental practices to take on more NHS patients.
“Ideally, we need new dentists’ studies to be funded by the government, and then for them to be contracted to work for the NHS until these are paid off, or leave the NHS and have to pay them back in instalments like any other graduate.
“If we cannot guarantee that every child can be registered with a dentist, then we should have travelling dental practices that visit schools too.”
She added: “Many people moving to Devon or Cornwall, are blissfully unaware of the situation until they get a toothache and try to register with a dentist, only to be told that the wait is at least a year.”
Exeter MP Mr Bradshaw says he has been raising the issues for many years, and has not be reassured when the crisis will be resolved.
He said: “It is completely unacceptable for the government to claim there is no crisis in NHS dentistry and to hide behind Covid. Yes, Covid has made things worse but the facts speak for themselves and they long predate Covid.
“It’s impossible to get an NHS dentist in Exeter. The current wait for one is two years and it’s getting worse. There are 78,000 people in Devon and Cornwall are on the waiting list. I have been raising this crisis with ministers for years.
“There are far too few emergency slots available for the demand and people are waiting in agony. This is an appalling situation for one of the richest countries in the world, but when I was invited to a conference call with the minister, she denied there was a crisis, refused to apologise and couldn’t say when it would be resolved.
“The Westcountry is particularly badly affected. I know from parliamentary colleagues that other parts of the country are not so badly affected.”
NHS England has confirmed the changes it is trying to implement in the short and long term future.
Ian Biggs, director of Primary Care NHS England and NHS Improvement South West, said: “We would like to apologise to anyone who has been unable to access urgent dental services in a timely manner.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, we created urgent dental centres (UDCs) to help provide care and treatment for urgent dental needs within infection prevention control guidelines while high street dental practices were closed.
“Since high street dental practices have been able to reopen for face to face appointments, they are nationally operating at around 60 per cent of their usual capacity due to infection prevention guidelines and to help manage demand for extra appointments, we have kept most of these UDCs in place. There are 16 in Devon and Cornwall.
“We have also been reviewing urgent care capacity and are in the process of working with practices to commission more urgent dental appointments imminently for the next 12 months.
“We also commission urgent dental appointments through the Peninsula Dental School Enterprise (PDSE) making use of dental students and trainee appointments.”
Looking ahead to the future, he continued: “For the longer term, NHS England and NHS Improvement South West have initiated a dental reform programme to improve oral health and access to dental services across the region.
“As part of this work an oral health needs assessment was completed to help understand the needs of the local population.
“Feedback from this and other engagement work with patients, clinicians and other stakeholders will be used to inform a plan developed with our partners for the future of dental services in the region that fits the needs of the local population.”
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