Dentist: There aren't enough of us in Wales to do NHS work as service tries to reduce covid backlog

A dentist has said there isn't enough practitioners in Wales to do NHS work as many people across the country struggle to secure an appointment.

Russell Gidney, a dentist in Chepstow, says before Covid-19 his practice was seeing around 400-500 patients on a weekly basis.

In the first three months of the pandemic, he saw as little as six people a week.

Across Wales, in 2019 around 2.3 million courses of treatment were completed by NHS dentists in Wales. However for 2020-2021 just over 540,000 courses were recorded.

That's almost a 1.8 million decrease in dental treatments and in the same period, less than 3,500 examinations were recorded, which equates to a 99.4% drop, compared to the year before.

With fewer people seeing a dentist during the pandemic, that has created a huge backlog. Many are now having to wait for extensive periods on waiting lists - that is if they are even lucky enough to get on a list.

The British Dental Association says that it could be at least two years before some routine cases are seen.

People in rural areas are said to be finding it particularly difficult to get a dentist appointment.

However Mr Gidney has said that his practice is starting to see almost the same numbers it did before the pandemic or thereabouts.

Despite that he says under the current Covid restrictions for health environments, dentistry has significantly changed. He also says the change in contracts for NHS dentists has really altered the way the sector will operate in the future.

"There's never been enough dentistry. As a rule of thumb about half of the population are registered with a practice and the NHS dental budget is capped. So it's not a case of me saying I've got another 1,000 patients here, I'll get another dentist in, there simply isn't the funding.

"We can't start doing anymore work unless there is more budget to accommodate more people.

"Because we're working within that budget, we can only give more access (to surgeries) by taking away from somewhere else. We're losing our historic patients to give access to maybe 20% of new patients.

"Fundamentally unless there's more money within that system, it's only going to stretch so far without taking away from other people."

However for Wales' Health Minister, she says NHS dentists have been offered more funding.

Eluned Morgan said: "the interesting thing is that a lot of them (dentists) are not coming along and picking it up because a lot of them would rather do private work, so that's a challenge for us as a government.

"We gave additional funding last year - significant additional funding - and many of them simply didn't come along and pick up the money we were offering them."

Ms Morgan did admit that there is a real problem for people trying to get dental treatment in Wales and said part of that is down to the pandemic.

"Because of the measures that they've (dentists) had to put in place in order to keep people safe, both the dentists and the patients, it means the cleaning they have to do has restricted their ability to get through patients on the scale that they usually get to."

Cleaning times between each patient has been around 15 minutes and social distancing in surgery waiting rooms has all meant less people have been seen.

The BDA has also said that the industry has struggled in recruiting and keeping hold of dental nurses. Without them, some surgeries have had to cancel appointments.

The union says higher wages in different jobs as well as reduced stress has lead many to leave the profession.

On top of that, they say morale has been low within the sector, with many having to work flat out to deal with the backlog of patients and prioritise those in pain or urgent cases first.

For the Brecon and Radnorshire MP, Fay Jones, she thinks the Welsh Government really needs to get a grip on massive wait times in rural areas.

"Covid has made the problem worse but it existed long before covid."

She worries about the long-term impact high waiting times will have on people's oral health.

Ms Jones added: "If I were in charge of health care in Wales I would really try and put my shoulder into healthcare provision in rural areas to make sure people who live in areas like Brecon and Radnorshire are not left behind because sadly that is the case at the moment.

"In my constituency across the county of Powys we've got 23 dentists and only three of them are accepting NHS patients at the moment. Those three may not even be in Brecon and Radnorshire, they may be Montgomeryshire, so it's a really long way for people to travel and I'm not sure we're gripping this issue from a rural perspective. "

  • See more on this story on Sharp End here.