Soaring numbers of Wigan residents head to hospital for dental problems

The JPIMedia Investigations Unit has carried out an in-depth look at a service one professional body says is facing an "existential crisis".
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The data reveals that Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is confronting a dramatic increase in the number of people it is seeing come through its doors with problems that should be dealt with at dentists’ practices.

One suggestion is that people are turning to the NHS to get around the high cost of dentistry and statistics show that thousands of Wiganers each year face bills of £100 or more for treatment.

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Residents are having to dig into their pockets to the tune of around £1.5m annually for major problems with their teeth.

Dentists at work. Picture: Adobe StockDentists at work. Picture: Adobe Stock
Dentists at work. Picture: Adobe Stock

There has also been a rise in the borough in residents being admitted to hospital for mouth cancer in the past few years.

Concerns are also being raised nationally about the effect the novel coronavirus pandemic has had on dentistry.

The British Dental Association (BDA) says millions of appointments have been missed across the country and treatment levels have plummeted due to Covid-19.

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This, it is feared, will have a knock-on effect in future as serious mouth diseases are not spotted at routine check-ups and more costly interventions will be required to solve problems such as tooth decay which are not picked up on as residents stay away from the dentist.

The number of Wiganers going to A&E for dental complaints has risenThe number of Wiganers going to A&E for dental complaints has risen
The number of Wiganers going to A&E for dental complaints has risen

The Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership accepted there had been problems this year but said as many patients as possible were now being seen and urged anyone with dental problems to get in touch with their surgery.

At WWL the number of people presenting themselves at A&E, minor injury units or walk-in centres with dental problems has almost doubled in less than a year.

In total 697 people turned to the hospital trust for help in the first three quarters of the 2019-20 year, which runs up until January 1.

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This is a huge increase from the 391 who presented themselves in the entirety of 2018-19.

And the cost to the NHS in the borough has similarly shot up, currently standing a £117,095 for the first nine months of 2019-20 compared to £65,688 for the year before.

NHS England and the Department for Health and Social Care have dismissed ideas that people are facing problems getting to see a dentist or cannot afford to do so, saying the numbers of surgeries offering NHS care are the highest on record and those on low incomes can be treated for free.

However, dentists have told the JPIMedia Investigations Unit that they are seeing people being put off treatments by the cost.

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And the data shows that large numbers of Wiganers are facing sizeable bills for dental treatment.

In NHS Wigan Borough’s area some 5,675 payments of more than £100 were made to dentists for treatment, giving a total bill for this of just over £1.5m.

In the last five years £7.5m has been paid out for treatments which individually cost more than £100, with just short of 30,000 payments being made.

Annual dental fee increases of five per cent have become the norm in England in recent years.

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One dentist said cash-strapped patients had asked to wait until more teeth had fallen out before getting into the chair for surgery, while the president of the Oral Health Foundation, Dr Ben Atkins, said he had experienced patients book appointments and then simply fail to turn up.

And the Government has just announced an end to the fee freeze, meaning an above-inflation rise in costs from December 14.

The Department for Health and Social Care said it wanted everyone to have access to high-quality dental care.

Meanwhile, more patients in Wigan have been heading into hospital for cancers of the oral cavity, lip and upper throat, although numbers have plateaued.

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There was a 67 per cent rise in mouth cancer admissions at WWL between 2014-15 and 2018-19.

However, the data shows this consisted of a large jump between 2015-16 and 2016-17, with numbers since then having remained around the same higher level.

The BDA said the national increase in mouth cancer admissions showed how vital it is for people to go to the dentist, describing check-ups as “the frontline for picking up on the telltale signs” of the disease.

Covid-19 has added considerably to the difficulty of the picture facing dentists, with new safety procedures meaning windows must be maintained between seeing patients to minimise transmission risks.

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The BDA is calling on the Government to urgently provide funding for surgeries to obtain the right equipment.

The organisation’s chair Eddie Crouch said: “Access problems that were common pre-Covid are now the norm in every community.

Practices face a deeply uncertain future as they try to balance tight restrictions, higher costs and a collapse in patient numbers.

“We need a clear plan to keep services afloat and for real investment in prevention.

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“We cannot risk a ‘new normal’ of care for the few and widening oral health inequalities.”

A spokesperson for the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership said: "The coronavirus pandemic has been challenging for all healthcare services, and changes were made to reduce the spread of the virus.

“Across the country, this meant there was a period when dentists were unable to provide many of their normal services and treatments. Predictably, this led to fewer patients being referred to hospitals. Dental services have now recommenced and, when required, patients are being referred to specialist services.

“Dental practices across Greater Manchester are working to restore all non-urgent dental treatment and check-ups. If anyone has a dental problem, they should contact their practice for an appointment or advice.”

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If someone does not have a dentist and needs urgent dental care, they can call the Greater Manchester Urgent Dental Care Service on 03333 332 3800, from 8am to 10pm every day (including weekends and bank holidays).

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