British dentists feel suicidal amid soaring pressures as Whitehall 'turns a blind eye' to the crisis

WHITEHALL has been accused of ‘turning a blind eye’ towards a crisis in British dentistry, with plummeting morale and soaring pressures pushing more dentists to the brink of suicide.

Monday, 23rd November 2020, 7:00 am
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‘Broken’ dentists are being overwhelmed by stress and struggling to hit crippling patient targets – even before the coronavirus pandemic brought widespread disruption to the industry.

A shock study by the British Dental Association (BDA), which represents dentists, has found almost one in 10 dentists considered taking their lives in a single year.

And the organisation fears the coronavirus crisis will only have increased the mental health burden on dentists, with practices facing financial concerns and a large backlog of patients.

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The mental health crisis facing the industry is so severe it has seen dentists banding together to form a new helpline for anxious staff.

Experienced practitioners are also stepping in to counsel their suicidal colleagues during face-to-face sessions, The News has learned.

The situation comes as an investigation by JPIMedia – which owns The News – today reveals how more than 77,000 people nationwide turned up at overstretched A&Es and minor injury services in 2019/20 with dental problems, costing the NHS an estimated £13m.

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Dr Phil Gowers, chairman of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Local Dental Committee, blamed the problem on years of chronic underfunding from government.

The lack of cash has led to a recruitment crisis which has ramped up pressure on dentists already at breaking point, he said.

Now health campaigners in Portsmouth have demanded a radical rethink in how the government finances NHS dentistry – seen by dentists as the ‘forgotten relative’ of UK healthcare.

Dr Gowers, who supports 950 dentists across the county, said: ‘The government is turning a blind eye to the crisis – they are ignoring it.

‘There is a complete disconnect from the people in power and the people who voted for them.

‘Over the last 10 years the amount of investment and funding in the NHS has virtually doubled. But in dentistry, it’s now minus £500m in real terms.

‘NHS dentistry is the Cinderella service. It’s the overlooked poor sister of healthcare. We’re trying to play on a losing pitch. We are at a crisis point.’

JPIMedia’s investigation has also revealed:

# A shocking 1.45 million adults in the UK cannot access an NHS dentist# 700,000 people cannot afford vital NHS dental treatment# Mouth cancer rates have rocketed as people fail to see their dentists

Critics have blamed the growing trend on surging fees for NHS dentistry and continued difficulty accessing appointments, particularly in England – even before the first coronavirus wave brought dental treatment to a standstill.

Dr Gowers said he is now supporting suicidal staff and warned of a rise in the number of dentists contemplating killing themselves.

He claimed dentists were under increasing pressure, trying to meet patient targets while dodging the threat of legal action against them by unhappy patients.

‘This is a huge issue that’s only getting worse,’ Dr Gowers added. ‘Dentists feel isolated. They don’t know where to go to get help. They feel that everyone is out there to punish them not to help them.’

In a survey of more than 2,000 dentists, carried out by the BDA, a shocking 17.6 per cent said they had contemplated suicide at least once in their life.

The investigation also highlighted a worrying trend of ‘burnout’ within the industry, with more than two thirds of dentists showing ‘a high level of psychological distress’.

Roger Batterbury, chairman of Healthwatch Portsmouth, said action was needed and appealed for an inquiry by the health and social care committee into UK dentistry – shelved last year – to be revived.

‘Clearly something is not right in the system so it needs to be looked at urgently,’ he added.

‘The trouble is central government can be very ponderous when it comes to making decisions. That can’t happen now… it needs a prompt turnaround.’

A fee rise planned for April was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Department of Health and Social Care says ministers are now considering whether and when to lift this freeze.

Meanwhile, the amount invested into dentistry each year by the government has fallen by a fifth – nearly £500m – in real terms since 2010.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘Dental charges help towards the running costs of the NHS, but we carefully consider them every year and continue to offer people on low-incomes free treatment through exemptions and the NHS low-income scheme.’

They added that all dentists have been able to remain open during the second national lockdown, and those practices holding NHS contracts have continued to be paid in full throughout the pandemic.