As if going to the dentist were not scary enough, government investigators have found another reason for patients to fear sitting in the chair. A new report has revealed that almost one in three practices are failing to meet basic national targets for protecting their patients from infection.
The government-commissioned survey of almost 500 dental practices also found that 12 per cent of dental surgeries were, in effect, putting dirty instruments into people's mouths, because they were not hitting established cleanliness standards. The failure to disinfect forceps, probes and mirrors properly threatens to weaken defences against potentially deadly diseases such as HIV, hepatitis C and vCJD.
Just over 70 per cent of the dental practices visited were meeting "essential quality requirements" to reduce risk from reusable dental instruments, while only one in five were meeting "best practice" guidelines. The Dental National Decontamination Survey raised grave doubts over the chances of the worst-performing practices meeting the essential quality requirements by next spring, when they will come under the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the health watchdog.
British Dental Association (BDA) guidelines require surgeries to disinfect reusable instruments, such as drills and probes, using a detergent wash or ultrasonic cleaner before sterilising them. The procedure is designed to kill pathogens, some of which can survive high temperatures.
"The [research] indicates a wide range of often unrelated defects in practice, equipment and approach," the report stated.
Details of the continuing failings in hygiene standards at many practices come three years after a similar survey revealed that 40 per cent of dental surgeries in Scotland were breaching hygiene rules. The study, by clinical microbiologists at Glasgow Dental School, resulted in surgeries across Scotland being forced to install new decontamination units.
Andrew Lamb, the BDA's director for Scotland, said: "Dentists are required to meet the highest infection-control standards in the world and are committed to preventing any risk of infection to patients."
The new study also found that most practices are failing to reach essential quality requirements on testing their equipment; some are not storing equipment correctly; and 15 per cent have no record management system. Lord Howe, the health minister, said more action was needed "as a matter of urgency" to bring all practices up to the required standard.
"While the risk to patients is small," he said, "we cannot afford to be complacent. Under the new registration system with the CQC, all dental practices will have to comply with the same safety and quality requirements."