Eighteen dental practices in West Sussex have handed back their NHS contracts since 2020, councillors have been told.
The information, which was described as ‘distressing’ by one councillor, was shared during a West Sussex County Council health and adult social care scrutiny committee meeting.
As of October 2023, six Mandatory Dental Service contracts had been handed back in Arun, three in both Mid Sussex and Worthing, two in both Chichester and Horsham, and one in both Crawley and Adur.
And a survey for 2022/23 found that only 73 per cent of Sussex people who tried to access NHS dental services over the last two years got an appointment.
Reasons for not being able to do so were split between a lack of appointments and dentists not taking new NHS patients.
In 2022, NHS Sussex became one of the first Integrated Care Boards (ICB) to take on responsibility for commissioning dental services.
A report from Dr Charlotte Keeble, director for pharmacy, optometry & dentistry commissioning at NHS Sussex, gave an update on the work being carried out to understand what barriers people faced when trying to access NHS dental care, and what had been done to improve things.
One of the major barriers appeared to be the contracts under which the dentists worked.
The contracts require dentists to carry out a certain number of Units of Dental Activity – the number of units delivered depends on the amount of treatment given. For example, a check-up might be one unit while a filling might be three.
But, while the government said it had invested £3bn each year to deliver dentistry across the country, some dentists felt the funding associated with the contracts was not enough to make working with the NHS viable.
Dr Mark O’Hara, of the West Sussex local dental committee, said he felt ‘optimistic and positive’ about Dr Keeble’s report, but that ‘hands were somewhat tied’ by the contracts.
He added: “That is ultimately a challenge that probably locally most us will struggle to overcome or work around.
“There is dwindling excitement and encouragement to continue to work under this current contract.”
Agi Tarnowski, senior dental officer, special care dentistry, Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust, said of the ICB: “They’re trying really hard to do what they can within the confines of a contract that doesn’t work and within budgetary pressures.”
Ms Tarnowski described the number of contracts being handed back as ‘worryingly high’, adding: “No practices in Sussex that provide NHS services can afford to be NHS dentists alone. They need private income.”
Calling for more to be done to persuade dentists to stay with the NHS, she said: “Time is of the essence. We are losing people now at such a rapid pace [that] if we don’t act now and we can’t move things, I’m really worried about what will be left of NHS dentistry.”
Members of the committee agreed that pressure needed to be kept up when it came to lobbying MPs and the Secretary of State about the need to rework the contract at a national level.
James Walsh (Lib Dem, Littlehampton East) said NHS dentistry in parts of West Sussex had ‘largely collapsed’ and accused recent governments of being content to see ‘NHS dental services wither on the vine’.