Latest figures show the exodus of patients from the NHS is accelerating as dentists turn away non-paying patients. The number of adults registered with an NHS dentist fell by 2.6 million in the year to last December, a drop of 11.6 per cent.
Since 1992, when the Government cut dentists' fees, triggering the rush into the private sector, the number of registered NHS patients has fallen by almost 5 million to 19.7 million, a drop of nearly 20 per cent.
Half of health authorities in England and Wales say that NHS dentists are becoming harder to find, according to a survey published yesterday by the association. One in five of those seeking to fill salaried posts now advertises abroad.
The association, which has warned of the decline of NHS dentistry for many years, said the findings confirmed its worst fears. It said an extra 550 dentists were needed in England and Wales, on top of the existing 20,000, and urged the Government to invest an extra pounds 250m over five years to improve access for patients.
"We don't know whether those who have stopped seeing an NHS dentist are being seen privately or not at all. It is worrying but the Government is not taking it seriously. It is not a priority," the association said.
The 75 health authorities who responded to the questionnaire survey said they had received 55,000 calls from patients over a three-month period last summer complaining of difficulty finding a dentist. Half the authorities said the number of complaints had increased, a third reported no change and a sixth said calls had fallen since the previous year. Over half cited travelling distances for patients, which can be up to 50 miles, as a cause of problems.
The decline of NHS dentistry began more than a decade ago and an estimated one in four adult patients is now treated privately. Many dentists refuse to treat new adult patients on the NHS but still accept children. When a new NHS dental practice opened in Truro, Cornwall, last year, some people made a round trip of 100 miles to be put on its register.
The slow death of NHS dentistry has been brought about by rising NHS charges, which have accustomed patients to the idea of paying for dental care. NHS charges now cover 80 per cent of the cost of treatment up to a maximum of pounds 348.
The decline accelerated in 1992, when the Government cut NHS expenses payments. Dentists complained they could not afford to invest in new technology and that a two-tier service was developing between those who did private work and had the latest devices and those who stayed with the NHS and were forced to manage with outdated equipment in run-down surgeries.
The NHS charge for a check-up is pounds 4.76, and pounds 13.12 for a large filling. Typical private charges are pounds 15 for a check-up and pounds 25 to pounds 75 for a filling.
The Department of Health said it was trying to recruit more dentists.