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Change the narrative

Dental practices are facing a great number of challenges. The recent publication of the British Social Attitudes Survey which showed the lowest satisfaction with the NHS recorded and a significant drop in satisfaction with NHS dentistry was just the latest piece of evidence that NHS dental services need to change.

If patients and the public are not satisfied with NHS dentistry then they are fully in line with the dental profession.

The challenges facing dental practices come out of this joint dissatisfaction. Dentists no longer want to work in a system that patients are frustrated by. This makes it harder for practice owners and practice managers to motivate and recruit staff which in turn makes it harder to meet targets. This results in financial penalties to practices increasing the stress on practice owners. In the meantime patients are frustrated because they can’t get an NHS appointment because no-one wants to work in the system that doesn’t support them. On top of this the government has announced that NHS patient charges will increase by 8.5 per cent so patients have to pay more for a service they are increasingly disappointed by.

What needs to be done?

The single most significant action that could help resolve the twin issues of a demoralised workforce and dissatisfied public is to reform the dental contract so that it helps dentists provide high quality care to all those who need care without patient charges. Until that happens, however, two other areas need to be directly addressed.

  • The profession needs to fall back in love with the idea of NHS dental services. The morale of those providing NHS dental care needs to be lifted and their work celebrated.
  • The public needs to be engaged so they understand more about their oral health and also to see that NHS dentistry is a full part of the NHS so they appreciate its value.

How can the profession fall back in love with a system that does not support them to provide the care they want to give and their patients want to receive? Why would they choose to work in a system that drives stress when they could provide the highest quality care at their own pace and for greater financial reward?

These are the questions we will be seeking to address. We will help remind the profession of the transformative impact their skills can have on someone’s life. Not just on the instagram generation, but on the most vulnerable. Good dentition, good support from a known and trusted dentist, can transform someone’s life. The ability to eat, speak and socialise with confidence can break isolation, bring confidence and self-respect and act as a gateway to better overall health. We will be building case studies of the transformative power of NHS dentistry so that the profession can see the impact it has on people’s day to day lives. Too much coverage is of the negative and the can’t do. We want to show what happens when dentists act.

In 2019 for the first and only, time dentists were included in the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index
2019 Public Trust in professions survey
. The dental profession was rated as the third most trusted profession, only just behind nurses and doctors. Yet the story we hear about dentistry is one of distrust. There is a negative narrative that the public distrust dentists and that regulators are out to persecute. Improvements to how cases are dealt with are no doubt needed but there is a clear emphasis on upstream regulation, preventing issues arising in the first place. The emphasis on fear needs to be reduced and more focus is needed on all the positive support and engagement the profession has to offer. We will continue to work with the GDC to improve their processes and make sure that, should they be in contact with a dentist, the process is as supportive as possible. We will also work to ensure that messaging around dentistry in general is more positive to encourage people to see it for what it really is: a valued and fulfilling career.

At the local level we support our member LDCs to engage with their stakeholders to improve messaging about dental services. This will help increase patient and public awareness, reducing frustration. It will also empower people to have the conversation with MPs and Councillors about what they need from their local services. We want to understand more about what patients think about NHS dentistry. We know from the coverage over the pandemic and from the reports published by Healthwatch England that the public values NHS dentistry and wants access to it. But we also know there are barriers. We will work to understand the expectations and desires about NHS dental services from the public and work with their representatives to achieve the changes necessary to ensure that services are fit for the future.

Dental practices are facing a great number of challenges. They have faced a great number of challenges in the past and will do so again in the future. But the profession has always managed to thrive and overcome its difficulties. The challenges we face today are tough but they are no more tough or insurmountable than those in the past. Dentists solve problems every day, and by working together through the LDCs and by LDCs coming together in the LDC Confederation we will solve the systemic problems we now face and give ourselves the tools to solve any problems which come our way.