Lack of NHS dentists leaving patients in East Anglia 'pulling out their own teeth'

  • Watch Callum Fairhurst's report for ITV News Anglia

Campaigners have warned people are "pulling out their own teeth" because they cannot get an NHS dentist - with some entire towns now left without a single NHS dentist.

It comes as new figures show NHS dentists are leaving in their droves to take up private work or drop out of the profession altogether.

More than 2,500 dentists across England and Wales stopped treating NHS patients last year, according to research from the BBC Shared Data Unit.

In some of the worst-hit areas, such as West Suffolk, they have lost more than 20% of their NHS dentists over 12 months.

When the town of Leiston in Suffolk lost its last NHS dentist, Mark Jones decided to set up the campaign group Toothless in England.

"Leiston lost both of its NHS dentists in the last couple of years, leaving 6,000 residents without access to any NHS dentistry," he said.

"We decided we’d put a campaign together to protest this injustice.

"We’ve paid in National Insurance contributions all our working lives and we expect the NHS to be there for us when we need it."

Mr Jones added: "People are pulling out their own teeth - literally pulling out their own teeth - because because they can not access a dentist.

"The health implications of not being able to access regular check ups is very severe. You could have oral cancers that aren't being picked up, potentially issues with heart conditions as a result of poor oral hygiene.

"We're calling on the government to do something about it now: to put the money in and get the reforms that are urgently needed."

The number of NHS dentists each clinical commissioning group (CCG) has lost over the last year:

  • 40 - Cambridgeshire and Peterborough

  • 39 - East and North Hertfordshire

  • 34 - West Suffolk

  • 29 - Norfolk and Waveney

  • 27 - Northamptonshire

  • 25 - Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes

  • 13 - Ipswich and East Suffolk

  • 13 - North East Essex

  • 12 - West Essex

  • 6 - Mid Essex

Patients have told ITV News Anglia that they've been on a waiting list of an NHS dentist for more than two years. Credit: ITV News Anglia

ITV News Anglia has spoken to patients who say they have been on a waiting list for an NHS dentist for two years.

Another patient said they had to decided to go abroad to get treatment because it was cheaper.

It has also emerged that Dentaid, a charity which provides dental care in poor communities around the world, is having to help meet the demand for care in areas including Bury St Edmunds and Leiston.

Many dentists are unhappy with the NHS dental contract and say they have to take on more private work to make ends meet.

Sarah Canavan, a dentist at Long Buckby Dental Practice in Northamptonshire, said she was being forced to go private because the practice would not break even on NHS work alone.

"I am overstretched and underfunded," she said. "It's exhausting. It's awful having to make a decision that I never thought I'd have to make.

"I feel guilty, I don't want to do it, but I can't carry on the way that it is.

"To save NHS dentistry you need to listen to what we're saying. Otherwise it's not going to exist and more patients will suffer as a result of it.

"Unless the government wake up and smell the roses, they're going to find they'll have an NHS dentist service they can't run as there won't be enough dentists willing to work in the NHS."

Dentist Sarah Canavan from Northamptonshire says she's being forced to go private. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Hannah Woolnough, a dentist from Woodbridge in Suffolk, left the NHS six years ago. She said her business would not have survived without taking on more private patients.

"You've got a limited NHS contract," she said. "There's no way of extending that, there's no more commissioning available locally.

"So the only way we could increase the amount of revenue coming through the business was to offer a bigger private service.

"It's really difficult. The majority of dentists don't go into the profession because they just want to earn lots of money.

"You're spending eight hours a day in a small room, working one-to-one with people who are often in pain, who have complex medical and dental issues, and you're trying to keep them healthy.

"We go into those careers because we want to be healthcare professionals."

An NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS has taken unprecedented action to support NHS dentists throughout the pandemic by providing additional funding for practices unable to deliver their usual levels of activity, alongside rapidly setting up 600 urgent dental centres across England so patient services could be maintained during the pandemic.

“People should continue to come forward for the dental care they need, and the care and treatment of people who need it most should be prioritised.”