The state of NHS dentistry is not just about teeth - it is also about life and death

The Scottish Goverment’s failure to fix the NHS dentistry system could have grave consequences, writes Willie Rennie.

This week, Liberal Democrats led a debate in the Scottish Parliament on dentistry. In preparation, I asked the public to get in touch and tell me about their experiences in seeing an NHS dentist. I received a tidal wave of responses, and they are still being sent to me today.

The stories are nothing short of extraordinary: DIY dentistry with tools bought on Amazon, travelling hundreds of miles, paying a small fortune, hunting for an NHS dentist for weeks on end without success.

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Naomi Kimber from Newburgh is a single mother with no support, on universal credit, can’t work, doesn’t drive. She told me: “In one month, I spent almost £400 on x rays, two fillings and cleaning. This left me short for food, which meant I skipped meals so that my son could eat.”

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Stephen Kelley from Tayport said he’s been on a waiting list for four years now. He told me this: “I have had to resort to 'DIY dentistry' with dental tools purchased on Amazon (I am actually not joking).”

Another constituent told me he was going to Turkey for treatment because it was cheaper to travel all the way there than incur private costs here.

NHS dentistry is in crisis.

The British Dental Association say the Scottish Government’s revised payment system from November has made little to no difference.

In Fife, there are no dentists accepting new NHS patients. This month, Nanodent in Glenrothes said it had no choice but to shut for “an extended period”. Redburn Dental in Kirkcaldy is going fully private due to ongoing pressures. Last year, the Newburgh practice went private and the Tayport practice closed.

Almost 82 per cent of NHS dentists in Scotland no longer take on new patients and 83 per cent say they'll reduce their NHS numbers.

It’s bogus to claim that a high percentage being registered with an NHS dentist means that everything is fine. Research by my party last year found that almost half of those registered have not seen an NHS dentist in the past two years, 1.2 million have not had an examination or treatment in five years and more than 10 per cent haven't seen an NHS dentist for over a decade.

And we should not forget the SNP have abandoned their promise to abolish all NHS dental charges. In fact, they’ve increased, not been scrapped.

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We need to change course. That means introducing a fee system that reflects the true cost of providing treatment, reversing the 35% real terms cut. It means raising the cap on student dentists and increasing the vocational training places beyond 155. It also means speeding up the registration process for overseas dentists, which currently has a two-year wait with the General Dental Council. I know of one dentist working as a pizza delivery driver because he can’t get registered.

Let me leave you with one chilling anecdote from a dentist:

“An early oral cancer has a 5-year survival of 80%, a late stage one only 20%. One oral surgery department reports alarming increases in late presentations of oral cancers.”

This is not just about shiny teeth- this is a matter of life and death.

Willie Rennie is the Liberal Democrat MSP for North East Fife