NEW families setting up home in Shetland face waiting years for a routine dental appointment as health chiefs attempt to tackle the lack of independent practices on the islands.
More than 19,000 people from a population of 23,000 are registered for NHS treatment, but that is well above the number of patients the dentists currently operating can comfortably see.
There are also 800 people waiting to be registered, and they too have little hope of being seen quickly.
Anyone arriving on the isles face the prospect of not getting a routine appointment for years.
Nationally, Shetland has the lowest ratio of dentists per head of population. There is no independent dental practice on the isles, making it unique in Scotland.
There are two Public Dental Services (PDS) – “salaried” – in the island’s capital Lerwick, with others in Brae, Yell and Whalsay.
Anyone requiring urgent treatment would have to attend an emergency service based at the Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick.
Shetland’s dental chief Raymond Cross said he is embarrassed at the situation and has pledged to tackle the backlog by attracting an independent dental practice to the isles.
He said: “The PDS is doing more than it should do capacity-wise. I’m hopeful there will be a high street style dental practice here by the end of the year.
“The problem is expecting someone who doesn’t know anything about Shetland coming here to invest in an unknown market.”
Funding, he said, was available through the Scottish dental access initiative, which was set up to encourage dentists to locate to rural areas. So far, however, no-one has applied to work in Shetland. There are 9.8 “full-time equivalent” dentists on the islands, plus one locum based at the hospital’s dental suite.
NHS Shetland said that 15 dentists are needed, based on the industry standard of one per 1,500 people.
Appointments are currently being made on a clinical need, but can’t be made too far in advance as dentists are rotated from base to base.
A locum is due to arrive this month to fill a vacancy left in Yell, one of the outer islands.
But Cross is not keen on continued use of locums, believing the answer lies in recruiting an independent practice. The situation is also being aided in the summer with two students due to work on a temporary basis. Some newly-qualified vocational trainees may follow.
Cross arrived in Shetland last year, inheriting twin roles of “chief administrative dental officer” and clinical director of “salaried” services in Shetland.
He said 90 per cent of patients went to independent surgeries, leaving only 10 per cent reliant on NHS “salaried” services, where dentists are directly employed by the NHS.