'Toothache for months': We couldn't find one dentist taking NHS patients

Kay Piper and Peter Chenery

Kay Piper and her partner Peter Chenery, from Lowestoft, have asked what has happened to the NHS's duty of care. He has been waiting for months for dental treatment. - Credit: Archant

Two thirds of children in Norfolk and Waveney have not seen a dentist in over a year amid a county-wide shortage of NHS dentistry which has been made worse by the pandemic.

Patients who are in so much pain from their teeth they cannot eat solid foods are waiting months to see a dentist, attending A&E or even performing their own dentistry.

One third of adults surveyed in this year’s NHS dental survey said they could not get an NHS appointment, up from just nine percent before the pandemic.

One woman described how her carer broke a tooth and, unable to find a dentist, used a metal nail file to perform her own dentistry so she would not cut her tongue.

As part of our ongoing investigation into the state of the health service, this newspaper tried to find a dentist taking new NHS patients.

We called 75 dentists’ surgeries, in locations including Norwich, King’s Lynn, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Beccles, Dereham, Fakenham, and Hunstanton.


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None were taking new NHS patients. Almost all said their waiting lists were closed. Less than six said they were taking on new patients but only on a referral basis from other dentists. Ten said they were accepting private patients.

‘Dreadful pain’

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Natalie Palmer, 48, from Beccles, said: “I’ve had horrible toothache for four months.

“It limits what I can eat. I can’t eat anything that’s firm, like nuts or popcorn or crisps or anything that’s chewy. And even when I eat ordinary soft food, because I’ve got cavities, even the food I can eat gets stuck in the cavity and that starts the pain off again.

“The pain has been absolutely dreadful, it’s so horrible. 

“I’ve been putting ice packs on my jaw, taking as much pain relief as I could.

“You feel like you can’t get away from it. If you’ve got a sore toe it’s not nice but it’s different somehow, pain in your head, you can’t get away from it.

Natalie Palmer

Natalie Palmer, 48, from Beccles, has had toothache for four months - Credit: Supplied

“I had to go to A&E to get antibiotics which I think cleared up some of the infection, but I still have cavities where my old filling fell out and I still can’t get a dentist.

“My worry is the situation might get worse again and then where do I go - am I going to have to go to A&E every time to get antibiotics? My GP wouldn’t even discuss my teeth with me - it was a phone appointment of course.”

Natalie, who is disabled, called 111 for help but they told her to go to the dental clinic at the West Suffolk hospital - which closed four years ago.

She added: “One of my carers had to do her own dentistry with a metal nail file. She had a tooth break and it left a sharp edge which was cutting her tongue. She rang round and couldn’t get in with anyone so she had to take a metal nail file and file it down.

“We’re a wealthy country, it’s not like we’re a third world country, and people are having to do their own dentistry.”

It’ll get better… next summer

According to the NHS dental survey, availability and satisfaction have fallen. 

In 2019, among 8,848 people surveyed in Norfolk and Waveney, 91 per cent were successful in getting a NHS dental appointment. This year that was just 66 per cent, of 9.109 people surveyed.

In 2019, 52 per cent of respondents rated their experience of NHS dental services as “very good”. This year that had fallen to just 39 per cent.

The pandemic has magnified a problem which was already more severe in this part of the country than in many others. There have been more patients per dentist in Norfolk and Waveney, than across England as a whole, since 2015 and that trend has accelerated recently (see graph).

From last March to last June, face-to-face dentistry was cancelled altogether save for the most extreme emergencies, and since then Covid restrictions have meant clinics cannot see as many patients as before.

Any use of equipment like a drill or a high-pressure water pick creates an aerosol mist, so to minimise the risk of viral spread dentists must leave “fallow time” for the air in the room to be safe again - up to an hour between patients in many cases.

It means, with too few dentists to begin with, and those there currently are working more slowly than before, those in pain can see little light at the end of the tunnel.

That problem has particularly affected children, who are advised to visit the dentist more regularly. In June of  2019, 59 per cent of children had seen a dentist in the last year. That had fallen to 33 per cent by June 2021.

Among adults, the percentage who have seen a dentist in the previous two years fell from 50 to 41 in the same period.

NHS England told this paper it was currently in the process of procuring new dental services for Norfolk and Suffolk, for new services for adults and children for routine as well as urgent appointments. 

These new services are due to be running in summer next year and will be open from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week, 365 days of the year including all Bank Holidays. 

They will also provide dental care services to vulnerable people in the area, including homeless people, asylum seekers and those that do not have recourse to public funds. These services are planned to be in operation by June 2022.

But that will be scant reassurance to those currently in constant pain.

‘He can’t eat his roast’

Kay Piper and Peter Chenery

Kay Piper and her partner Peter Chenery, from Lowestoft, have asked what has happened to the NHS's duty of care - Credit: Archant

Kay Piper’s partner Peter, 51, has been in pain for months, after their local dentist in Lowestoft closed.

The retiree explained: “He’s literally just lost two more teeth. He was in so much pain. 

“We got him an emergency appointment at a dentist, but it was literally injection in, pull the tooth out, and leave. There was no follow-up. He needs dentures, he needs dental care, and he’s not getting it.

“He probably only got seven or eight teeth left.

“He can only eat soft things now, he’s unable to chew. He loves pork, but he can’t have it because he’s got no teeth to chew it with, so he can’t eat a roast dinner. 

“How is it fair? He’s worked every day of his life.”

Peter Chenery

Peter Chenery, 51, has only seven teeth left now but has been warned it might be 2024 before he can have dentures fitted by the NHS - Credit: Archant


Hannah Woolnough

Hannah Woolnough, Chair of the British Dental Association’s English Council - Credit: Archant

Hannah Woolnough, Chair of the British Dental Association’s English Council and a dentist in Woodbridge said: “Dentists are still working to tight restrictions that have slashed our capacity. The result is massive backlogs, and patients not getting the care they need.  

“Things may ease shortly, but patients shouldn’t expect a return to 'business as usual' any time soon. 

She added: “The fact is NHS dentistry across the region was in crisis long before Covid struck. 

“It will take more than slogans from the government if we’re going to build back better.” 

Peter added: "It's terrible, it's changed the whole of my face, there's no NHS dentists anywhere and I don't know how or when it's going to get any better.

"The dentists I spoke to the other week said it would be 2023 or 2024 before I could get it sorted out, because of the backlog of people who can afford to go private.

"I think that's wrong - what happened to being treated equally, and the NHS's duty of care?"

An NHS spokesperson in the East of England, said: “Urgent and emergency dental care is available for those who need it, and people should continue to use the NHS 111 service for advice on where to go.

“Forty-nine urgent dental care hubs are in operation in the East of England to provide care for people with urgent and emergency dental problems, and we are committed to ensuring everyone can access high quality dental care, and we are working closely with dental providers to improve access to services.”

See also:

Cancers not caught until too late

Hospital saw just one breast cancer patient on time

Hip op patient takes out £16,500 loan to go private after three-year wait

The crisis in the region's ambulance service

Tomorrow: The struggle to see GPs

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