Dental complaints on the rise
Complaints about NHS dental practices have risen by two-thirds with access, treatment, and fees, common causes for concern, according to England’s Health Ombudsman.
The number of complaints to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) about dentists increased by 66% from 1,193 in 2017/18 to 1,982 in 2022/23.
The proportion of complaints being upheld or partly upheld after investigation by the Ombudsman has also gone up from 42% to 78% in the same time span. This is significantly more than the average uphold rate of 60% for all other NHS services.
The Ombudsman receives around 100 calls a week about issues relating to dental practices, such as people being removed from practices’ lists of NHS patients, lack of NHS dentists, and poor treatment.
Ombudsman Rob Behrens yesterday said:
“Poor dental care leaves patients frustrated, in pain and out of pocket. They, and dental professionals, deserve a better system that leads to quality care.
“Many of us will have read recent headlines of people removing their own teeth and seen images of people queuing outside practices for an NHS dentist. This shows in access problems, such as appointment availability and lack of treatment being a common issue in complaints brought to us.”
Cases upheld by the Ombudsman in 2023 include:
- a pregnant woman from Southampton who was forced to pay £1,045 for a private root canal treatment after her dentist failed to tell her that she was exempt from NHS fees so her treatment should have been free. After treatment, the dentist then failed to fit a crown within the 30 days as recommended by the private specialist, leaving the woman in pain and distress.
- a woman was burned inside her lower lip during a root canal treatment at a practice in Birmingham. She was left in ‘excruciating’ pain for 13 days, couldn’t sleep and could only eat soft or liquid foods such as eggs and soup.
- a practice in Stockport said the price for a five-tooth bridge was £330 total, rather than £330 per tooth. If the patient had understood the real cost, he would not have agreed to his front tooth being removed in preparation for the bridge and would have considered other treatment options. He was left with no front tooth and had to have further work carried out by another practice to fix the gap.
Earlier this year, the Ombudsman gave evidence to the Health and Social Care Select Committee inquiry into dentistry.
It was recommended that Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) should take the lead in removing barriers to accessing dental services. These barriers include poor information available via the NHS website and 111 about local NHS dental services and the imposing of unnecessary private costs for procedures that could have been completed on the NHS.
The PHSO also said that to address inequalities in oral health, Government’s reform of the NHS dental contract should go further in improving information for patients. There should be a requirement for clear and current information on accessing a dentist in an emergency or out of normal service hours on the Directory of Services on the NHS website.
There also needs to be complete transparency over the costs of care. This includes more public information about NHS treatment bands, what does and does not meet the criteria for NHS treatment, and the options for private referral.
Mr Behrens added:
“Like many other areas of the NHS, dentistry is suffering from low morale, underfunding, and a recruitment and retention problem.
“More needs to be done to tackle the serious issues in dentistry. Patients must be able to access quality care and be clear about what is and is not available to them on the NHS.
“Dental professionals need to feel supported and that leaders in the NHS and Government understand the problems they are facing and are working towards a meaningful solution.”
William Pett, Head of Policy, Public Affairs and Research at Healthwatch England, yesterday said:
“NHS dentistry is the second most common problem the public tells Healthwatch about. Over the past three years, our local services have produced over 400 research reports exposing experiences of people suffering in pain, performing DIY dentistry and struggling to pay treatment costs.
"Improving information, including online, will be essential so that people have a clear picture of where and how they can access services, and the charges they will need to pay. We have therefore welcomed the Health and Social Care Select Committee's call for a national information campaign to tackle misconceptions about 'registration' with dentists.
"Ultimately, however, only fundamental and fully resourced dental contract reform can tackle the deep-seated problems we see across England. We eagerly await the government's long awaited dental recovery plan. Patients will continue to pay the price until action is taken."
For more information or to make a complaint to the Ombudsman visit: www.ombudsman.org.uk
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