Patients turning away, as lockdown targets push service to breaking point


The British Dental Association has warned many NHS dental practices will now face an uncertain future, as new evidence shows the January lockdown has left patients unwilling to keep appointments or seek care, and dentists incapable of meeting unworkable activity targets recently imposed by government.

Based on YouGov polling (fieldwork 7- 8 January 2021):

  • 46% of adults in England indicate they would be likely to cancel a routine appointment if they had one booked in during the new lockdown

  • 45% are now less likely to seek routine care when due for a check-up, when compared to before the new restrictions. One in six (16%) would be less likely to seek dental care even with an urgent problem, like acute pain or facial swellings

  • Survey findings reflect new evidence from dentists themselves. BDA survey data indicates nearly 8 in 10 practices (79%) have seen an increase in the levels of cancelled or missed appointments since the New Year, with 43% reporting they’ve seen a much higher than usual rate of no-shows compared to earlier in the pandemic

  • More than three quarters of practices also report issues with staff availability since the New Year, with 39% citing COVID-19 infection as having a high impact, with 53% citing staff self-isolation, and 42% problems in securing childcare owing to lack of clarity on their key worker status.

The targets – imposed on New Year’s Day – will see practices in England face steep financial penalties if they fail to hit 45% of their pre-pandemic NHS activity targets from 1 January to 1 April 2021.

The BDA criticised the imposition for forcing practices to prioritise non-urgent care, which would better enable them to hit their targets. In light of the survey evidence dentist leaders have urged government to abandon the targets and let practices maintain a focus on urgent cases, without the ever-present threat of sanctions.

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Two fifths (41%) of practices – 2,732 practices in total – are currently operating below 36% of their targets thus facing a ‘cliff edge’ and the potentially ruinous return of the majority of their NHS funding for the period 1 January to 1 April 2021.

The union has stressed that ongoing support for all practices, both NHS and private, is needed now more than ever. Dentists are still among the only businesses on the high street not receiving business rates relief, which has already been extended to bookmakers and vape shops.

Dave Cottam, Immediate Past Chair of the British Dental Association’s General Dental Practice Committee said: ‘Practices are open and safe, but with lockdown back patients are voting with their feet.

‘Cancellations are surging, while increasing number of staff are sick, self-isolating or struggling to secure childcare. Targets that were always hard to justify are now impossible to deliver, leaving scores of dedicated NHS practices set to go to the wall.

‘To their credit Ministers have taken a pragmatic approach during this pandemic. From facemasks to furlough when the facts change, so have the policies. Dentistry cannot be the one exception.’

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Patients turning away, as lockdown targets push service to breaking point .
BDJ In Pract 34, 5 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41404-021-0658-y

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