Patients are facing three-year waiting lists for an NHS dentist, with some who struggled to get appointments during the Covid pandemic now being told they have to go private.
A damning report into the state of dentistry warns that patients are increasingly being “removed” from practice lists for not making an appointment sooner, but are being told that they can sign up as private patients instead.
The review of 1,375 cases found some people had been asked to wait for three years for an NHS dentist appointment but told they could have a private slot within a week.
A report by the watchdog Healthwatch England found a number of dentists shutting down or “going completely private”.
Complaints rose by a fifth in the first three months of this year, with four in five people contacting the watchdog raising concerns about long waits.
Dentists said the Covid pandemic had pushed a system in crisis to “breaking point” with thousands of people on their waiting lists.
During the first lockdown, the majority of dental care was stopped for around three months, causing a huge backlog of people waiting. Since then, infection control protocols have meant dentists seeing lower volumes of patients.
But the report suggests a number of practices are now refusing to treat NHS patients who were unable to get care during the pandemic, saying they now have to sign up as private patients.
The watchdog said dental surgeries reported that they have “thousands” of people waiting, with patients unable to access care after ringing round numerous surgeries.
Delays have resulted in the worsening of painful symptoms and in one instance led to a patient needing hospital treatment after they overdosed on painkillers, it said. Some patients had been told to use DIY “filling kits” because waits were so long.
Healthwatch England said some people are being offered swift private care at the same dental practice as an alternative, with some patients reporting that they felt “pressured” to pay for private treatment. Some reported that their appointments had been cancelled repeatedly, even mid-way thorugh a course of treatment.
“People have felt pressured to go private as dentists said that they couldn’t provide NHS treatments but were able to if people were willing to pay private fees,” the Healthwatch report said.
“People were unable to make an appointment with their regular dental practice because they were removed from the practice list for not making an appointment sooner.
“They only became aware of this when they tried to book an appointment as they had never received any notification about it. Some were unable to find another practice taking new NHS patients, so they ended up paying privately to be able to see a dentist.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We are committed to supporting the dental sector throughout this unprecedented pandemic so everyone across the country can access affordable, high-quality dental care.
“All dental practices have been able to deliver their full range of face-to-face care since last June, with over 600 practices providing additional support for urgent dental treatment.”