County facing pandemic dental patient backlog amid struggle to recruit new dentists
The challenge of recruiting dentists to relocate to rural areas such as Shropshire is partly to blame for the current patient backlogs, health bosses have said.
The county’s health and wellbeing board heard today that attracting new dentists and retaining the ones already here had become even harder since the pandemic.
This has compounded existing constraints resulting from the complete suspension of dental services at the onset of Covid, followed by two years when surgeries were not operating at full capacity.
Addressing board members, Darrell Jackson, senior commissioning manager for NHS England, said the pandemic had had a “dramatic impact on dentistry”.
Mr Jackson said it was not until July last year that dentists were seeing the same number of patients as before the pandemic.
He said: “That again has had a massive impact on patient access because dentists have not been able to see the number of patients they would have seen had we not been in Covid.”
Mr Jackson said practices were still dealing with huge backlogs, resulting in patients struggling to book appointments.
However he said Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin were in line with both England and the Midlands, with similar problems being seen nationwide.
“Prior to the pandemic, roughly 55.7 per cent of the population accessed NHS dentistry,” said Mr Jackson.
“That figure is currently sitting at 48.3 per cent, so we have got some way to go to get back to where we were.
“We have not just let this happen to us, we have been actively working with dentists to try and get access back up so we had lots of initiatives.”
Mr Jackson highlighted some of the measures brought in such as weekend access sessions and investing in waiting list initiatives in orthodontics, and the ‘Golden Hello’ which sees a cash payment given to new dentists.
He added: “We have established the Golden Hello scheme for the Midlands, and we have particularly targeted rural and coastal areas and Shropshire was included in that.
“It was very much in recognition that it is really hard to recruit new dentists at the moment and rurality plays a big part of that.
“We found that a lot of dentists that previously were commuting into Shropshire from Birmingham, for example, no longer want to make that journey.
“We have had to try and incentivise not only in the recruitment but in the retention.”
Concerns were also raised that rural patients could find themselves cut off from dental services.
Councillor Cecilia Motley for Corvedale, cabinet member for adult social care, public health and communities, said: “I represent a very rural division in Shropshire and I am interested in the problems of rurality in dentistry.
“First of all it must be difficult to find a lot of dentists operating in rural areas in the first place.
“I’m just wondering if there’s a problem around take-up, particularly from elderly people living in rural areas, in terms of… having to go into one of the market towns in order to access dentistry?
“Public transport is extremely sparse in the rural areas.”
Councillor Motley also asked whether there were any dentists in the area co-located with GPs in order to reach more rural patients.
However Mr Jackson said dentists were not normally able to move into shared premises such as ‘health hubs’ because they – unlike GPs – have to pay rent.
He said: “The only help they get is a contribution towards their business rates.
“The cost of them going into a health centre is usually much greater then the premises that they currently rent and that’s quite a barrier to getting them to move to other areas.
“But, if there was a need and there was a desire, practices could open a branch site in some of the rural areas.”