The main health focus at the moment is largely on waiting times for GP appointments, ambulances and treatment at the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital (GRH).
There is a lot to resolve, in what one consultant described to me as a ‘perfect storm’ of events, including the worst flu for a decade.
Some things have in fact improved since the Christmas period e.g. South West Ambulance response times have halved, the average time lost per day in handovers is down by two thirds and the internal rating for the Ambulance Trust has moved from Red to Black for the first time in 2 years. The situation in the GRH has improved too. We all hope that health services' performance will continue to improve, and appreciate the hard work involved.
But there is another health issue where things have not yet improved: the availability of NHS dentists. A number of frustrated constituents have also raised this and many more may feel the same way.
This is a national issue with 9 out of 10 practices nationally not accepting new NHS patients, including large numbers of children, and a number of dentists moving away from NHS practice. Things have to change.
I highlighted these and other problems in last October's dentistry debate: do see https://www.ukpol.co.uk/richard-graham-2022-speech-on-nhs-dentistry/ for more.
Speaking in the dentistry debate
At the moment, unlike other areas of health, MPs have no easy way to tackle dentistry issues because local NHS organisations (now known as Integrated Care Boards) have no say in the contracts agreed centrally between NHS England and the dentists. Bluntly the 2006 deal is no longer working.
A dentist in Gloucester with 25 years’ experience told me:
“The majority of dentists move away from the NHS because of the continual pressures that the NHS contract places upon them in terms of requirements, payments, audits…and many other factors”.
She went on to argue that patients need more time to be treated and that dentists should therefore be paid more.
Richard visiting NHS Dental Services in Gloucester (2019)
So in short the system is no longer working and there is nothing that local NHS managers can do at the moment if dentists effectively opt out (and do private work) and so the Government therefore has to sort this out.
What's being done?
There will be a new contract for dentists wef April 2023 and some urgent action by the Department of Health, working with the NHS, to deliver more dentist services asap in different ways. I hope these will be creative to deal with the backlog - e.g include visits to schools by mobile dentists to see what the worst problems are.
Importantly local ownership also comes in April i.e the local NHS (the ICB combined body) will be in charge and can allocate extra funds where those are most needed, and be answerable to MPs in Gloucestershire with constituent issues.
At my last discussion on dentistry with our ICB before Christmas, I encouraged a local recruitment drive for new NHS dentists, and in Parliament I asked Ministers to make it easier to encourage international talent to come to the UK, whether from the Commonwealth, (e.g. New Zealand, Australia and India) or Hong Kong.
I also encouraged:
1. New dental schools to establish more future dentists.
2. VAT reduction on toothbrushes and toothpaste
3. Mobilisation of private sector capacity capability
4. Short term contracts to help step in to care for people with immediate dental issues, and ensure children who may never have seen a dentist in their short lives get an appointment.
Nothing comes cheaply, but I think we can all agree that sorting out dentistry and making sure everyone has access to NHS dentists is a very important cause, and we need workable improvements fast.
So I and other MPs are on the case of current dentistry system failures, the government has made contract change a key priority and is devolving funds to local NHS managers wef April. There are the right steps forward, and I believe we'll hear about others before long.
P.S. Let me know your reactions, thoughts and hopes on firstname.lastname@example.org