More than a decade after the coalition government announced its intention to reform the dental contract in England, action may finally be on the horizon. The new Health Secretary Therese Coffey has announced her focus will be on “ABCD: Ambulances, Backlogs of routine treatment, Care, Doctors and Dentistry.” It is no secret that NHS dentistry has been facing a growing crisis, with patients across the country struggling to access treatment due to the number of dentists moving to the private sector. Coffey’s challenge is significant – stabilizing the system and restoring public and professional trust in a system that has seen a number of false starts in the quest for a new dental contract.
The current dental contract has long been criticized by dentists for its sole focus on activity, which reimburses dentists for the volume of activity ‘units’ they complete. Dentists argue that this process is overly simplistic, and prevents them from focusing on preventative treatment, as they are financially incentivized to carry out more invasive work.
To remedy this, in 2015 the coalition government announced the launch of two new prototype contracts, with the aim of reducing dependency on activity as the only means of measuring activity and allocating funding. After the timetable for reform was pushed back repeatedly for a number of years, the government announced it would abandon the protypes in March 2022 and would work to find an alternative means of reform.
Against this backdrop of long term uncertainty, NHS dentistry has struggled to recover from the disruption caused by Covid-19, and is now suffering from an accessibility crisis. Since the pandemic, many practices have been operating at full capacity with patients waiting months for an appointment. At the same time, dentists are leaving the NHS, with over 2,000 ending their NHS contracts in 2021 alone. This leaves those remaining struggling to keep pace with demand. Currently, 90% of dental practices in England are unable to take on new patients, driving patients to the private sector (where they can afford it).
In July 2022 the Johnson government announced some significant revisions to the contract, with the aim of stabilizing NHS dentistry. These changes included establishing a new minimum UDA value, which increases the amount dentists will receive for their work, funding practices to deliver more work where possible and removing some of the barriers preventing dental therapists from carrying out treatment.
The reforms have been largely well received, but some sector leaders have warned that they lack the ambition to truly solve the issues the sector faces. Nigel Edwards, Chief Executive of the Nuffield Trust has argued that ”a lack of investment and misalignment between costs and funding have made it increasingly unattractive to be an NHS dentist. The resulting exodus of dentists has fuelled growing waiting times. While more money to help high-performing dental surgeries see more NHS patients is helpful, it does not address the problem that many areas in England have little or no access to an NHS dentist.” This view is shared by the British Dental Association, which has warned that the changes will not stop the ongoing exodus of staff from NHS dentistry, or solve patient access issues.
We may have already seen some preliminary reform to the dental contract, but Coffey’s very public focus on dentistry as an issue indicates that further reform is on the horizon for the NHS dental sector, an admission of how much change is needed. It also potentially signals that dentistry, long seen as a Cinderella service in comparison to other parts of the health system, may finally be getting the recognition and attention it needs to be able to secure real and lasting change.
In the meantime, however, more dentists are likely to switch their focus to private practice, in turn driving those who can pay for dental treatment to do so. The government is unlikely to seek to alter this dynamic and is likely to instead focus on addressing the lack of NHS dentists taking on new patients to attempt to stem the accessibility crisis.
Solving the issues facing the dental sector is no mean feat, but in putting the issue so high on the political agenda, Therese Coffey has indicated that there is now a feeling of greater urgency in finding a solution to long running issues affecting the sector. Regardless of what this change looks like, demand for affordable, accessible dental care will remain extremely high, particularly for patients who are unwilling and unable to pay high prices for treatment in light of the growing cost of living crisis.