NHS Dentistry continues to be one of the biggest issues in my inbox — and I have always been clear that EVERYONE who needs NHS Dentistry should be able to access it, when they need it.
When we think of our health, too often, as a society, we neglect to consider the importance of our teeth. Dental health is a crucial part of NHS services and it is vital that EVERYONE can access the support they need.
However, as I am sure many in Mid Norfolk will be unsurprised to hear, access to NHS dentistry (or rather the lack of access) is now the single, most commonly raised issue in my constituency Casework and Correspondence. Whether it be via email, letter, telephone or even at one of my regular Supermarket Surgeries that I hold around the constituency, no other issue is raised as often as this one.
That’s why I continue my work to raise the scale of the problem with the NHS, DHSC and relevant Ministers, and to try and find local solutions here in Mid Norfolk.
Over the last 3 years, I’ve continued to speak with NHS professionals and the teams in local dental practices to understand the causes of the current crisis.
It’s clear that a mix of problems have coalesced; principally:
- Lack of dentists (part of the overall healthcare staffing crisis, as well as many trainees moving overseas to warmer climes and better pay)
- Problems with the historically low NHS Tariff which means dental surgeries aren’t reimbursed fully for the usual cost of seeing someone
- A thriving private dental sector with those who can afford it seeing dentistry more like a High Street optician service
- The cost of living crisis meaning many more people can’t afford to pay for private dental care
- The pandemic backlog which, despite the tireless efforts of NHS dentists, continues to be a big problem for our local NHS dental sector
Lobbying DHSC / NHS
Since the current crisis began, I have written regularly and spoken on numerous occasion to Dental Ministers and the Health Secretary to request action on the specific measures that local dental leaders here in Norfolk have flagged would deliver the short term benefits and improvements we desperately need to see, in addition to the more long term reforms needed to properly grasp the problems being faced and ensure they don’t occur again a few years down the line.
New Measures announced in ‘Our Plan for Patients’
I was delighted therefore that the Government listened, publishing and working at pace to enact its ‘Our Plan for Patients’ which:
- Introduced legislation to amend the NHS Dental Contract and better incentivise dentists through fairer remuneration to do more NHS work (not just private), as well as to take on more difficult cases.
- Seeks to improve the NHS dental sector’s capacity and resilience by allowing greater flexibility around local commissioning so that dentists can take on more work where they are able to.
- Allows dental practices to better deploy the skills of hygienists, high skilled practice staff and therapists in a way similar to that in which GP surgeries now deploy nurses – so as to increase capacity for check-ups and basic treatment while freeing up dentists to do more specialist and urgent treatments.
- Allows dental practices greater freedom to personalise recall periods for patients in order to further free up capacity and allow patients with more urgent needs to be seen more regularly.
The Government also announced the ‘NHS Long Term Workforce Plan’, which includes a commitment to increasing the number of training places for dental therapy and hygiene professionals across the UK by 28% by 2028/29. See more here
This is real progress, but I remain committed to doing all I can to lobby hard for further local support and improvements to help tackle the scale of the problem here in Norfolk.
I understand that further discussions are taking place between NHS England, the British Dental Association and other stakeholders with a view to reforming the NHS dental contract so that dentists are better incentivised to take on more NHS work. I also understand that the Government is due to publicise more information about additional measures it wants to see taken to improve access to NHS dentistry. Rest assured, I will be monitoring those developments very closely indeed.
Stronger LOCAL INTEGRATION with mainstream NHS
Over the last 14 years, we have increased NHS spending by c30% - from c30% of all HMG expenditure to >40%.
For years, I have made the case that the best way to improve local NHS services is via stronger local integration (see more here).
That’s why I welcome the news that commissioning of NHS dentistry moved from NHS England to the Norfolk and Waveney NHS Integrated Care Board (ICB) at the start of April 2023– and am pleased there is broad agreement that this step will allow local NHS providers to better coordinate dental support alongside other related and/or important healthcare provision.
Back in March 2023, I met NHS England and the ICB and was reassured that they had been working together for a year to best manage the transition of commissioning – with NHS England committed to working closely with the ICB to support their leadership for the foreseeable future.
More information can be found here.
I believe the best people to drive forward progress are the local clinical and care sector leaders and professionals who are working on the frontline – and who have first-hand expertise of the issues being faced.
I therefore welcomed the ICB’s recent Short Term Plan announcement (see more here) which, having been developed following extensive engagement with local dental providers and stakeholders like Healthwatch, aims to address the most urgent priorities in dental provision and look for quick methods by which the local sector can be stabilised and access to services for patients can be improved, has been developed following
Although it will not solve all of the challenges facing NHS dental provision in our region, the Short Term Plan does intend to deliver tangible short term benefits, while giving the ICB time to develop the Long Term Plan that will ensure Norfolk has the first class dental provision it needs for years to come. I understand they remain on course to publish that longer term strategy by Spring 2024.
I am determined to do all I can to support the ICB’s efforts and am pleased to see the new powers they inherited in April 2023 being used to put in place locally led plans that will deliver tangible benefits for all of us who rely on local dental services. I continue to actively engage with the ICB and ensure the views of local people are being heard both by them AND ministers and officials in Westminster.
A Norfolk Dental School to improve levels of local dentists
We need to be training more dentists.
That’s why I have also been working alongside fellow Norfolk MPs to highlight the importance of securing a new undergraduate training School of Dentistry at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
For the past two years, I’ve joined debates in the House of Commons and lobbied ministers and officials to ensure they know it is crucial that the UEA proposals are taken seriously by the Government and supported.
(See more here, including clips of my specific interventions in the debate)
While the recent announcement of the new Dental Development Centre at UEA is very positive indeed (see more here), it must be the first step towards a full undergraduate training School of Dentistry – one that also enables qualified dentists to specialise in more expert treatments too.
As we know, statistically, students that study at the likes of UEA and the University of the Arts are far more likely to settle locally than students elsewhere in the country. I believe we would see the same occurring were a dental school established here and, with a full School of Dentistry, more would be incentivised to stay – no longer needing to move to major cities like London in order to progress their skills.
I welcomed NHS England’s commitment in Spring 2023 that they would engage proactively with local MPs as we develop the campaign for a new Dental School here in Norfolk, recognising the value such an institution would provide. That work continues with them now. I have also continued to work closely with fellow MPs, NHS officials and Norfolk partners to emphasise the importance of such a school if we are to properly grapple and solve the challenges being faced by our dental sector – most recently in joint-Norfolk MP letters to both the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Chancellor (see more here).
While positive progress has been and continues to be made, there is still much more to be done. I do not shy away from that fact.
Rest assured however, I am determined to do all I can to speak up and work for improvements for all my Mid Norfolk constituents.
To stay up to date with my campaign work on this issue, please do check back in regularly to view my my campaign page here – including the webstories below.