Dr Sejal Bhansali is Chairman of Conservative Dentists.
Last week the Labour Party announced, that if elected, everyone will be entitled to a ‘free teeth MOT’. What has not been reported is that under the current Conservative Government, check ups are already free for:
- Children (but less than 40 per cent of the population attend the dentist);
- Students under 19;
- Pregnant mothers or those who have had a baby in the previous 12 months;
- In-Hospital patients;
- The unemployed or those on Income Support.
Cost is not the barrier to dental treatment. The challenge is, more so, access to dentists and the size of the profession willing to work with the NHS.
A previous Labour government introduced the current dental contract in 2006, whereby dentists are paid by UDAs (Units of Dental Activity). If a patient needs ten fillings or one, the dentist is still paid the same, which is a ‘Band 2’. The contract does not take into account the growing cost of materials, practice management or the cost of auxiliary staff, for example dental nurses and receptionists. It often costs a practice more to treat NHS patients then what they receive for doing so.
The contract has forced a number of practices to become solely Private Practice. Working within the NHS is no longer financially viable for many dentists. This in turn, has led to challenges of access, whereby many areas of the country lack a single NHS dentist.
The Labour policy has not discussed what happens if, after the free dental examination, the patients need treatment. Who is going to pay for this, the ‘Unicorn of Dental Activity’? Offering free examinations only works if the patient has a stable mouth.
When studying to become a dentist, the one phrase I was taught very early on was, ‘prevention is better than cure’. It is with dismay, so far, that I note the Labour Party has not mentioned anything about prevention.
Dental decay is 99 per cent preventable. Currently, oral health disease is the third most expensive healthcare condition behind diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Oral health disease places a significant burden on the NHS. Between April 2015 and March 2018 there were over 100,000 hospital admissions due to tooth decay among children. One in four children have dental decay by the time they start school.
The whole focus of Matt Hancock and the Conservative Government is on prevention. A commitment has been made to roll out improved toothbrushing schemes in nurseries and schools across England, and to produce proposals for supervised toothbrushing programmes that can reach 30 per cent of the most deprived 3-5 year olds by 2022.
A position on water fluoridation has also been taken, with Whitehall instructing the NHS to work more closely with local authorities to implement water fluoridation schemes. A sugar levy has been introduced and there is strong evidence it is working.
More needs to be done on prevention. Introducing the subject of oral health on the the Early Years Curriculum; increasing the number of advertisements that incorporate the importance of oral health and correct meal choices for children; encouraging the availability of more healthy, better and cheaper food and encouraging schools and nurseries to go ‘sugar free’, are all examples of good behaviour.
By contrast, Labour’s promise is just another ill-thought-through election gimmick.