During late 2021, Healthwatch East Sussex undertook a public survey of East Sussex residents experiences of dental services in East Sussex since March 2020, as well as a Mystery Shopping exercise to explore which practices in the county were accepting NHS patients at that time.
Our survey focused on people’s satisfaction with different aspects of dental services (e.g. waiting times, advice, treatment, referrals and costs) before and during the pandemic, including their experiences of registration with dentists; access to NHS and private services; whether dental needs were met (including access to emergency support); awareness of dental costs and exemptions; and information on changes to dental services.
These reports provides a brief summary of the key themes identified in the responses to the survey and the Mystery Shopping exercise.
Waiting times for emergency and routine dental treatments are leaving many people frustrated, with some experiencing significant negative physical and mental effects from the delays.
Information on which dental practices are accepting new patients, especially NHS patients, is often challenging to access, unclear and out-of-date.
Only one-in-ten dental practices in East Sussex are accepting new patients for NHS treatment on an unrestricted basis.
Approximately a quarter of East Sussex dental practices receive 20 or more enquiries a week from people seeking to join as NHS patients.
Some people remain confused about treatment plans, eligibility for free NHS treatment, and the costs and charges for different treatments, especially NHS compared to private.
Dental services and dentistry have become the most common reason people contact Healthwatch East Sussex. In late 2021, we ran two initiatives to explore dental services in East Sussex since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. These identified that the public are:
- struggling to access emergency and routine treatment
- finding it hard to identify dental practices accepting new NHS patients
- experiencing delays and cancellations
- feeling anxious due to variable access to preventative services such as check-ups and hygienists.
We heard about patient confusion as to why access to private dental treatment could often be obtained faster than NHS services, with some people also paying for private treatment due to their inability to access NHS treatment in a timely way.
We consistently heard about a shortage of dentists, with some parts of East Sussex having very limited dental services, and long waits even where services were available.
Our two engagement activities consisted of
- a ‘Mystery Shopping’ exercise where East Sussex practices were asked if they were accepting new NHS patients and how long wait times were
- a public survey to capture people’s wider experiences and satisfaction with dental services before and since March 2020.
John Routledge, Executive Director of Healthwatch East Sussex commented:
“Over the last two years people’s ability to access NHS dental services has become a real problem. Our findings show that access to routine and emergency treatment is increasingly more challenging for the public, with some people unable to access any service at all.
We are concerned that this leaves people in pain or discomfort, may worsen their oral health and leave people frustrated with delays. These problems also increase pressure on other health services which people turn to for support.
Healthwatch acknowledges the efforts of dentists to support and treat patients throughout the pandemic, but we are now calling on NHS England and other commissioners to commit energy and resources to make rapid, tangible improvements for people.”
The findings and recommendations in our reports aim to support dentists and commissioners of dental services in East Sussex to understand the issues that people are facing and the impact it has on their lives. We also suggest how contracting and services may be improved for the benefit of both providers and users.
We are calling for:
- Urgent action by NHS England commissioners to tackle the lack of NHS dentistry capacity in East Sussex and better communication of their plans to retain and expand capacity locally.
- Significant improvements to the NHS ‘Find a Dentist’ website with better accessibility and consistency in the public-facing information provided by NHS England and dental surgeries on which practices offer NHS treatment and are accepting new patients.
- Dental practices to follow General Dental Council and NHS Guidance and provide dental treatment plans to all patients in a form that meets their needs and allows them to make informed decisions about their treatment, including costs and differences between NHS and private options.
- Patients to be informed by dental practices about any factors which may lead them to be removed from patient lists, such as missed appointments, and for patients to be informed in advance of any removal and with a clear rationale for this taking place.
As the public champion for local health and care services, Healthwatch East Sussex will continue to work in partnership with commissioners and providers to monitor the experiences of patients and the public in accessing health and care services locally and explore how ongoing improvements may be delivered.