One of the issues which regularly came up in Copeland during the recent election was the impossibility of finding a dentist. This is becoming an increasingly acute problem in many parts of Britain, and Cumbria is one of three or four rural counties where the lack of access to dental services has become totally unacceptable.

During the run-up to the election WHICH asked candidates to support a pledge to work for improved dental services: I was happy to endorse this and would have made it a priority had I been elected.

Over the past few months the number of dental practices in Cumbria which are taking on new NHS patients has varied between three and nil. As of yesterday I was advised that there is not a single practice taking on new NHS patients in the county. And even if you are prepared to pay, many practices are not taking on new private patients either. If you are not fortunate enough to find one of the exceptions, the only way to get dental treatment short of an emergency is to travel anything up to a hundred miles.

Tony Blair promised five years ago that by now everyone in Britain would have access to an NHS dentist. As usual, he broke that promise.

Britain is not spending enough on training new dentists, and we do not have an adequate reward framework to ensure that it is worth the while of existing dentists to provide a basic service. And that isn’t only about money. One of my contemporaries at University who became a dentist on graduation recently switched to private practice, after a successful career as an NHS dentist, and subsequently wrote to tell me that she wished she had done so years ago – not just because of the money, but because of the freedom from all the bureaucratic rules and regulations.

Years of neglect will not be put right overnight but we need to make a start. This should involve a proper contract between NHS dentists and their patients so that everyone knows where they stand. We also need a sensible payment system based on the number of patients on roll rather than the number of procedures carried out, which should include a limit on how much patients will have to pay but a guaranteed adequate income for dentists which gives a reward for their skills and checks the steady loss of good dentists to cosmetic work.

Copeland’s MP, Jedi Jamie, has suggested in parliament that “golden handcuffs” for dentists might be part of the solution. Apparently the curriculum at the Jedi academy doesn’t include the law of unintended consequences. If you put conditions like that on any profession, one of the first side-effects is that fewer people are attracted to it.

Cumbria, and Britain, deserve better.


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