To achieve the NHS Long Term Plan goal of preventing health inequalities and improving health outcomes, the voices of those delivering and receiving dental care on a local level must be prioritised.
Top-down change, if not informed by local experience, will fail to address issues faced by service users and service providers. Therefore, the voice and experience of local councils, local Healthwatch and local service providers is key to creating an environment through which NHS dentistry can play its part in reducing health inequalities and improving health outcomes. This is why building strong relationships with these bodies is central to the role played by Local Dental Committees (LDCs).
The LDC Confederation is a membership body for LDCs which represent primary care dentists delivering care via NHS contracts. We actively support our member LDCs to engage with local stakeholders, to take the time to explain the complex NHS dental contract and to make clear how, if properly supported, NHS dentistry can help deliver their local objectives. These local relationships have created sympathetic alliances and a strong desire at the local level to see a reformed dental contract introduced that would remove barriers to care, which in turn would help to reduce health inequalities and improve health outcomes.
The local councils and local Healthwatch know their populations, understand their issues and seek to identify areas for improvement. Even before the pandemic, we were pleased to see a growing interest in NHS dental services from local stakeholders. Since then, of course, we have seen access to NHS dental services and appropriate provision of NHS dental care grow into a burning issue for almost every local authority.
Member LDCs have enjoyed close working with their local Healthwatch partners, helping with reports and speaking at events throughout London. During the pandemic we provided updates and patient facing information for our local partners to help them and their communities to navigate NHS dental services. This interest has increased dramatically throughout the pandemic as services have struggled to meet patient demand.
Barriers to access
The barriers to access exacerbated by the pandemic have existed since 2006. The pandemic simply brought them to the fore and demonstrated the historic neglect that NHS dentistry has suffered, but also the huge importance that the public place on NHS dentistry. Time and again we have seen reports which show clearly that dental services are highly valued and that satisfaction with the quality and outcome of the care received is high.
NHS dentistry should be one of the great success stories within the wider NHS: a high achieving clinical specialty, with high patient satisfaction, providing clinical care able to give instant pain relief and rapid functional outcomes. Instead, sadly, it is treated as an ancillary service which is not vital to health and wellbeing.
Local stakeholders know differently. They hear stories from patients in pain on a regular basis, from parents of children in pain, from those who are ashamed to go out or eat in public, from people who are afraid to access care because of the NHS charges and those who simply cannot navigate the system and end up at the GP or in A&E. We have been working hard with local partners to press for improvements to holistic care, especially for the most vulnerable such as those in residential care homes and those with conditions such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias, diabetes and stroke rehabilitation. These groups in particular need the system to work with them and for them if they are to lead lives free from avoidable pain and discomfort. Integration of services at the local level will support a holistic approach to care which would pay dividends in improved general health outcomes and quality of life.
Dental contract pilots
Dental contract pilots, later termed prototypes, have been the great hope of the profession since they began in 2010. These pilots were testing new models for the contracting of NHS dental care and were based on blends of capitation and activity. Appointments were longer and the focus was on prevention.
According to the Department of Health’s own press release in 2018:
- 90 per cent of patients had reduced or maintained levels of tooth decay
- 80 per cent of patients had reduced or maintained levels of gum disease
- 97 per cent of patients said they were satisfied with the dental care they received
At the start of 2022, the NHS announced the end of the prototypes and all dental practices operating as prototypes for the NHS are now reverting to their previous contracts. Despite the models showing such promise it is not clear how much of the valuable information taken from these pilots will be applied to a reformed contract in the future.
Local voices are vital
The current Units of Dental Activity (UDA) contract, is based on activity and the NHS is heavily reliant on recouping funding for dentistry through patient charges. This creates a disincentive for the system to increase access among those with the highest need, as a greater number of treatments take longer and in doing so will reduce the amount of activity delivered, throughput of patients and the amount of funding the NHS can recoup from patient charges. The current activity based contract is not able to support local objectives of reducing health inequalities, and the focus on treatment rather than prevention does not support the local objective of improving health outcomes.
If the local councils, and in the future local care partnerships and Integrated Care Boards, want to see a reduction in health inequalities and improvement in health outcomes then a dental contract which supports those objectives is needed. The LDC Confederation ensures that local stakeholders understand NHS dental services and the role they can play in meeting these priorities. We will continue to work with our local partners to make sure local voices who know their populations best will be heard at the national level. Local voices are vital to inform dental contract reform and to make sure that the dental contract is fit for purpose.
Real improvements to the NHS dental service will only be seen if reform is based on the experiences and priorities of those delivering and receiving care at the local level.