Coronavirus: 100,000 NI dental patients could lose all access to care, warns BDA

Around 100,000 of the most vulnerable dental patients across Northern Ireland could be left without access to care if Covid-19 pressures on practices are not addressed, according to the British Dental Association (BDA).

Monday, 23rd November 2020, 6:30 am
Updated Monday, 23rd November 2020, 12:17 pm

The BDA says that 80 of the 350 dental practices across NI fall into the most vulnerable financial category and are under serious threat.

The findings come as part of a series this week by JPI Media Investigations, looking at dentistry across the UK.

“If these practices go under then their 100,000 NHS patients will lose access to dentistry,” said Richard Graham, chair of the BDA’s NI Dental Practice Committee.

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Many dentists are working seven day weeks to meet patient demands. And they are having to do so wearing phyically draining enhanced PPE, which makes it difficult to breathe.

Because of the way these practices have evolved, the NHS patients which remain on their books would be some of the most vulnerable – children, the elderly and the unemployed, he said.

“Dentists are currently only able to handle about 20% of the patients they normally would, due to Covid restrictions,” Mr Graham said. At present dentists must leave 30 minutes ‘fallow’ and cleaning time between patients, due to Covid-19, thus slashing the number of fee-paying patients they can see daily.

Around 80 practices are very vulnerable, because less than 50% of their income comes from NHS patients.

While their NHS income from the government has remained fairly stable during the pandemic, the bulk of their normal income – from private clients – is down 80%.

Richard Graham, chair of the BDA’s NI Dental Practice Committee.

“If a practice’s NHS income is normally below 50% of its total income, the owner has already been putting in personal savings to keep the business running. Coming out of the pandemic, NHS patients at these practices will be in danger because they won’t have any practice left to treat them.”

A UK-wide BDA survey in July found that 96% of practices with an exclusively or largely private patient base thought it was “likely or extremely likely that they would face financial challenges” within three months.

UK dentistry is the only arm of the NHS which, by design, must take both NHS and private patients in order to survive financially.

Mr Graham said the pressures on many dentists is now “dangerous” in light of the financial, emotional and physical pressures.

Uniquely among NHS professionals, he says many dentists are at risk of losing their homes, as they had to borrow against them to fund their practices. Plus, unlike GB, dentists here must source their own personal protective equipment (PPE).

In addition, many dentists have been working seven day weeks since April to keep afloat, while the enhanced PPE they must wear takes a serious physical toll, as it severely restricts breathing.

One dentist who runs a large NI practice said he cannot speak openly about the true financial crisis his business is in – or staff and patients would panic and leave.

He would only speak to the News Letter on condition of anonymity.

He said: “I am confident that I will make this work, but along with many other colleagues I am facing the biggest challenge of my professional career and I do not want to add reputation recovery to my list of things to manage during this pandemic.

“Talking openly about whatever difficulties or pressures we are going through, whether professional or financial, can be very dangerous. If staff believe the business to be under threat they will start looking elsewhere for employment.

“And given the stresses of wearing the PPE, jumping from room to room during fallow time between patients and managing patients’ expectations, who would blame them? Patients will look for another practice to ensure they can receive care and dentists will look for another practice that might be more successful and allow them to provide more of the dentistry they have skilled themselves up to do.”

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