Improving access to NHS dentistry is one of the Government's key priorities for the health service. Dental services in many parts of England have been recovering, but I appreciate there is much more progress to be made.
The Government will shortly be publishing a dentistry recovery plan, which I understand will focus on improving access for new patients, and ensuring that NHS dentists are better incentivised to deliver NHS care. Discussions are ongoing between NHS England, the British Dental Association and other stakeholders with a view to reforming the NHS dental contract. These reforms will help improve access to NHS dentists by allowing the best-performing dental practices to see more patients and ensure better use of other dental professionals such as therapists, hygienists and nurses. Changes will also see dentists rewarded more fairly for complex care. Last year the Government announced an average pay uplift for dentists of 8.8 per cent, with the aim of retaining more dentists and improving service provision.
I also recognise that there is more that can be done to increase the recruitment of NHS dentists. In 2023, the Government has taken steps to reduce the barriers to overseas dentists being able to register with the NHS. The Government has also backed the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan developed by the NHS, which sets out many staff will be required to deliver patient care over the next 15 years. It is proposed through the plan that dentistry undergraduate training places are increased by 40 per cent by 2031/32.
I recognise concerns about access to NHS dental services in Mid Derbyshire, but would point out that the way such services are funded are sometimes misunderstood. In England, primary care or high street dentists are self-employed and can provide a mixture of private and NHS funded care. The delivery of services provided on the NHS is agreed between the NHS and the dentist under contract. Under the current national NHS dental contract, a local provider is funded to perform a set number of units of dental activity (UDAs) from April to March. However, this can result in providers reaching the limit of activity they can perform, even if there is demand for more appointments in a local area. The Government recognises the perverse disincentive this creates for dentists to carry out NHS work and is currently negotiating with the British Dental Association and others to reform the contract.
In England, there is a system of exemptions for NHS dental treatment. You do not have to pay if you are:
- under 18, or under 19 and in full-time education
- pregnant or have had a baby in the previous 12 months
- being treated in an NHS hospital and your treatment is carried out by the hospital dentist (but you may have to pay for any dentures or bridges)
- receiving low-income benefits, or you're under 20 and a dependant of someone receiving low income benefits
- named on a valid NHS tax credit exemption certificate or named on a valid HC2 certificate, which is available for people on a low income.
Continuous registration with dental practices is no longer required and patients are only registered with a dental practice during the course of their treatment. This differs from registration with a GP surgery as dental practices are not bound to a catchment area. If a patient is unable to access an urgent dental appointment through a practice, I would urge them to contact 111 for assistance.