Access to NHS dental treatment is another huge challenge for both employees & employers

The NHS is in crisis.  This statement has been ever-present in the national media for much of the last decade, and the headline numbers don’t lie.

The NHS England waiting list 13 years ago (January 2010) was 2.32 million, whereas figures recently published by the British Medical Association (BMA) showed the waiting list in June 2023 stood at a whopping 7.57million.

This equates to more than 1 person in every 8 of the population of England currently awaiting treatment.  The waiting list numbers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not directly comparable with the English ones, but if added to the NHS England number would likely result in a UK-wide waiting list for NHS treatment of somewhere between 8 and 9 million patients.

Such stark numbers have understandably resulted in many employers seeking to provide their employees with access to private medical treatments to maintain health and wellbeing, whilst also minimising employee absence and lost productivity.

Yet there is another – and growing – NHS treatment crisis that is yet to receive the same media focus or employer response.


NHS dental treatment

A report published by the Health and Social Care Committee of the House of Commons in July this year opens with these worrying words:

“NHS dentistry is facing a crisis of access, resulting in a decline in oral health. The Government needs to undertake urgent and fundamental reform if people are to receive the dental and oral healthcare they need.”

And the report goes on to provide much evidence to support this opening assertion, such as these stand-out facts:

  • 1 in 5 people are not currently registered with a dentist
  • 27% of people have not seen a dentist in the last 2 years

And most worryingly…

  • 1 in 10 admit to attempting their own dental work

But why is it so difficult to access NHS dental treatment?


The dental contract

The answer to that question appears fairly straightforward.

When Eddie Crouch, Chair of the British Dental Association, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program recently he said;

“The NHS dental contract is not fit for purpose… practices are being paid less than the cost of delivering the treatment”

If dentists are actively losing money in undertaking NHS work, then this explains why access to such treatment has become so difficult to source.  Indeed, the House of Commons report cites examples of people undertaking a round trip of more than 5 hours just to receive such treatment.


The impact on employment

This lack of access to such treatment is potentially problematic for both employees and their employers.

Medical insurance giant BUPA recently undertook a study which suggests that almost half of all employees (48%) have called in sick or left work early due to dental pain, and also highlights that many working days are lost each year as a direct result of dental issues.

Employers should also not overlook the almost medieval imagery of employees undertaking their own dental work.  Such DIY efforts may well be botched, and could then result in other – perhaps far more serious – medical problems.


What next?

So how can employers best respond to this issue?

Employers should first accept that this problem is likely to be a long-lasting one.  Whilst the government has indicated that a “dental recovery plan” is due to be published soon, there are some genuine doubts and cynicism as to whether such a plan will rapidly improve access to NHS dental treatments.  Indeed, the cross-party House of Commons report said;

“It is frustrating to have to return to recommendations made by our predecessor Committee fifteen years ago that still haven’t been implemented.”

 So, at least in the short to medium term, employers should perhaps expect NHS dental access to remain a genuine problem for their employees, and it follows that many more employers are now considering once again how they can help employees bypass the NHS access challenges and benefit from private treatment.

Employer options here include full dental insurance, dental cashplans, and voluntary (i.e., employee-paid) group offerings to workers.  It follows that the costs involved might not be the barrier they are so often perceived to be, and any offering in this space is likely to land well with employees and their representatives.

The reality is that the NHS is now facing not one but two access to treatment crises.  Employers should accept this new reality and do what they can to support employees until these issues are resolved.


Steve Herbert is Wellbeing & Benefits Director at risk consultancy & national insurance intermediary Partners&