The UK government is being confronted by calls to freeze NHS dental patient charges in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an open letter to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock MP, the Oral Health Foundation (OHF) argues that pausing the charges could help thousands of people combat dental disease and prevent a deterioration of health across the broadest spectrum of society.
The letter, issued earlier this week (6 July), has already gained momentum. The OHF is inviting practices to add their voices to the cause.
It makes several cases for why dental charges in England should be temporarily paused. For example, increased financial pressures, deteriorating health, and an opportunity to reconnect dental practices with their local community.
Discriminatory to households
The charity’s chief executive, Dr Nigel Carter OBE, says the current circumstances are ‘discriminatory’ to low income households.
He said: ‘While the furlough scheme has protected millions, many of these are missing out on 20% of their income.
‘In normal circumstances, dental costs remain a significant barrier to attendance. More than one in three (36%) adults say the costs associated with NHS dental treatment have prevented them from accessing treatment.
‘It is sensible to assume that at a time where more people and families are experiencing deeper financial struggles, dental visits will not be deemed a priority.
‘This is specifically discriminatory to households on lower incomes. It also applies to people with pre-existing medical conditions and those at higher risk of dental disease.’
The letter also warns that the removal of UDAs, together with recommendations to postpone aerosol-generating procedures (AGPs) could have an adverse impact on vulnerable patients.
Dr Carter added: ‘It is likely this could lead to the same patient receiving multiple courses of treatment. They could incur excessive cumulative patient charges. This places an unnecessary and unfair financial burden of those in ill health.’
Estimates put the number of cancelled or postponed appointments from dental practice closures on 23 March to the partial re-opening on 8 June 2020 at around 2.3 million. This translates to around 4.5 million fewer courses of treatment for adults who are expected to pay NHS dental charges.
‘The cancellation of these procedures, if left untreated or unmanaged, could lead to more invasive and expensive treatments. It could also lead to health depreciation,’ continued Dr Carter.
‘Additionally, we are concerned that a rise in dental caries, periodontitis and tooth loss are all very realistic possibilities.’
By temporarily pausing NHS dental costs, the OHF believes it will offer an incentive for those in poorer health, needing more expensive treatment, to have their conditions treated.
The charity uses the example of increased mouth cancer rates and the importance of dental visits for early diagnosis.
Most practices are operating at a reduced capacity due to social distancing measures. As a result, the OHF believes that any costs associated by pausing NHS dental charges would be a negligible expenditure for the treasury.
‘Freezing charges would be an important and clear signal that dentistry remains a fundamental part of a person’s health and wellbeing,’ added Dr Carter.
‘The dental practice has a key role to play in the health of local communities. Therefore, this must be reflected within the government’s wider health strategy.’
OHF research from April shows around 48% of the adult population were hesitant about returning to practices.
Dr Carter said: ‘Since lockdown, dental practices across England have done amazing work to change the way they work, creating a safer and more comfortable environment for patients. We believe a financial incentive in the form of a temporary pause on NHS dental charges would further help to encourage attendance.’
Ben Atkins, president of the Oral Health Foundation, believes a charge freeze would ease a lot of pressure for dental practices.
‘The key thing for me is it will take a lot of pressure off dental practices in difficult financial situations,’ he told Dentistry Online.
‘We can do some good in terms of prevention if we don’t have to collect charges from our patients. This is especially important for preventing diseases like mouth cancer.
‘It’s a journey I think we need to go through where patients can see it’s safe to come back. There are some people who are quite worried about seeing us. Not all, but there is a large amount who will hesitate.’
He added: ‘The reason why we were closed is not because it’s unsafe. Rather, because dentistry would put a lot of pressure on the PPE supplies. I think we could have completely crippled the system.’
The big freeze
You can support the freezing of NHS dental charges in England by writing to your local MP. A template letter can be downloaded from www.dentalhealth.org/FreezeNHScharges.
Find the details of your local MP at www.members.parliament.uk/constituencies
This article was first run in Dentistry Magazine July edition. You can read the latest issue here.