‘I had to drive 100 miles to see a dentist due to crisis in Bristol’

I put my story to NHS England South West and asked why so few dentists were taking NHS patients locally, and what was being done to fix the situation

To be honest, I had given up.

Four years ago I moved back to Bristol, and I remember initially trying to find a dental practice taking new adult patients. I think I called four, maybe five. Each one gave me the same answer; ‘sorry, no, we’re not taking any new patients currently’. That was that.

And, like some struggles in life, I left it. There were to be no check-ups in four years and, thankfully, no problems. That was until the end of the last month. While chewing on a hard sweet, I crunched down on the part of a filing that had just come out. I checked with my finger and yes, there was now an empty hole in one of my rear teeth.

I did what everyone would do. I picked up my phone and searched on Google. ‘See a dentist’ was the message on every website I visited, all with a varying take on how urgent the situation was.

I weighed up my options and quickly figured I must still be a patient at my last dentist in Wolverhampton, Coalway Road Dental Practice. I called them up. Yes, I was still a patient, and yes, they could get me in the following week.

And so, last Wednesday, I took a day’s holiday from work, got in my car and drove 100 miles up the M5 to the Black Country. Two hours later, I was parked outside the practice. Thankfully, there was no requirement for a follow-up appointment, and a new filing was inserted on the same day thanks to the dentist, who I suspect took pity on my situation.

Since Wednesday, I did a bit of digging on the issue and found my story wasn’t uncommon. Research published by the BBC in August showed that nine in 10 NHS dental practices in the UK were accepting new adult patients under the health service. In Bristol, the broadcaster contacted 47 dental practices and found just 2% were taking on new adult NHS patients.

Bristol World editor Alex Ross drove more than 100 miles to get to see a dentist in Wolverhampton
Bristol World editor Alex Ross drove more than 100 miles to get to see a dentist in Wolverhampton
Bristol World editor Alex Ross drove more than 100 miles to get to see a dentist in Wolverhampton

In South Gloucestershire that figure was slightly higher at 6% of 17 dental practices and in Bath and North East Somerset it was 4% of 23 dental practices But in North Somerset, not one of 17 dental practices was found to be taking on new adult NHS patients.

And as for those who need major operations, potentially due to the unavailability of NHS dentists, the BBC found that in 2020 there were 4,546 people on the waiting list at Bristol Dental Hospital.

There was, of course, another option for people in my position. Bristol has a number of private dentists and some NHS-contracted dentists offer private appointments - but at a cost. Why should one person without access to a dentist on the NHS have to pay when another person with access does?

Last year, Healthwatch Bristol described the situation in the city as a ‘dental crisis’. It has raised the issue with local MPs calling for an improved and equitable system. Bristol North West MP Darren Jones is among those to speak up on the topic.

The journey from Bristol to Wolverhampton
The journey from Bristol to Wolverhampton
The journey from Bristol to Wolverhampton

But the prospects aren’t good. Bristol is a growing city with thousands of new homes being built every year. Last month, Mayor Marvin Rees said 2,563 homes had been built - but is the infrastructure in place to support our new residents when people already living here can’t access a dentist?

I asked NHS England South West why so few dentists were taking NHS patients locally and what it was doing to solve the issue. A spokesperson told me: “NHS England South West is very conscious of the pressures on NHS primary care dental teams, with workforce shortages, high demand and a backlog to address, and we are working with practices to support them to continue to take on new patients.”

They said that additional capacity for NHS patients had been secured in Southmead in November. This month there will be more capacity procured for Keynsham, and then in February next year, more for Winterbourne too.

The body is also paying for additional urgent dental care appointments - 84 a week in Bristol - which people can access by calling 111. It is also prioritising the oral health needs of children with a child friendly dental practice in Cheddar in Somerset. And health visitors and midwives are now also being trained in giving oral health care advice to families with children under two.

Now, to be clear, dental practices are independent businesses, and patients are not registered with a dentist in the same way they are with a GP. But I believe much more needs to be done to encourage - probably through funding - dental practices to take on more NHS patients and for central Government to look at ways to encourage more people into dentistry to solve a workforce shortage.

Because I can’t be the only one.

Local dentists can be searched for by clicking on this NHS link.