Lack of NHS dental appointments widens health inequalities

A new survey of public attitudes to NHS dentistry shows that half of the adults in England find dental charges unfair amid escalating living costs. Healthwatch has warned decision-makers that NHS dentistry is in desperate need of reform.
Dentist with patient in examination room

With living costs on the rise, Healthwatch England's new findings show that health inequalities are widening as people in every part of the country struggle to pay for dental care. 

When people find it hard to access NHS dental care, they feel pressured to go private, which is not an option for many. And even NHS charges can be hard for some to afford. 

A representative poll of 2,026 adults based in England found nearly half (49%) of respondents felt NHS dental charges were unfair. 

What are people saying?

The poll, which looked at people’s experiences of NHS dentistry, including costs associated with dental care, found the following amongst people in the East of England:

  • Nearly half (48%) said they found it difficult to book an NHS dental appointment.
  • One in five (21%) said they had to pay privately to get all the treatment they required.
  • Almost one in 10 (9%) reported that their NHS dentist charged more for the treatments than the advertised NHS charges.  
I can’t find one anywhere taking NHS patients.....I’m a type one diabetic with gum disease and I can’t afford private fees.
— Peterborough resident

Widening health inequalities 

The shortage of NHS appointments has hit people on low incomes hardest, meaning they are less likely to have dental treatment than those on higher incomes. 

Overall, 38% of the respondents feel they are less likely to visit a dentist, despite clinical guidelines recommending regular dental check-ups to keep people’s mouths healthy.

I have struggled to find a Dentist taking on NHS Patients. Last year I had to pay private for dental care and since the same problem has occurred and I am no longer in a position to pay privately.”
— Peterborough resident

What local people are telling us

Between October 2021 and March 2022, more than 270 people have contacted us about their experiences of dental care, with more than four out of five (86%) struggling to access timely care. 

One person said, “It is virtually impossible to register with an NHS dentist.  It's almost impossible to get an appointment at the emergency dentist as well. I have three missing fillings. All I get is advice on keeping the teeth clean to prevent infection.”

Another told us, “I am in receipt of a PIP Personal Independence Payment).  I had gum disease and been seeing a private dentist but, cannot afford the fees anymore.  Could you help me find an NHS dentist?”

Chief Executive Officer, Sandie Smith, said

“Access to NHS dentistry is one of the biggest issues people tell us about. And we have repeatedly raised concerns about the problems people have finding an NHS dentist over the last three years.

"The twin crisis of access and affordability has continued to grow. And we are worried that those who are being hit the hardest by this dental access crisis are those on the lowest incomes.

"Whilst we understand that changes to the local NHS contract means more routine appointments should be coming available in the near future.

"We remain very concerned at the lack of access to NHS dentistry for local people.”

Child with tooth problem - told to go to private dentist to have it fixed.
— Peterborough parent

Healthwatch England is making renewed calls on NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care to put a reformed dental contract in place before formal responsibility for dental services passes to the 42 new Integrated Care Systems in April 2023. 

Locally, this will become the responsibility of NHS Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, which will be the statutory NHS organisation responsible for planning and delivering local health and care services. 

We want to hear from YOU 

We want to know more about the dental care you and your loved ones have received - both the good and the bad.

Help the NHS understand issues affecting care for you or a loved one in our short survey.

Share your experience