The situation is worst in the South-east with over half (52 per cent) of respondents saying they faced problems. In East Anglia, which includes the Prime Minister's own constituency of Huntingdon, the figure was 48 per cent, the second highest in the country.
Problems were less severe further north. In Scotland, only 16 per cent of respondents said finding an NHS dentist was a problem.
The British Dental Association, which commissioned the survey, is calling on the Government to increase funding for NHS dentistry "as a matter of urgency". There is a "serious lack" of dental treatment across the country, the association said, and it is urging the public to write to their local MPs to complain about the disintegration of the NHS dental service.
The relationship between the Government and dentists is at an all time low after years of dispute over fees. In 1992 a 7 per cent cut was imposed after dentists did more work than the Government had budgeted for.
As a result almost a million NHS patients have been "deregistered" by disillusioned dentists in recent years. Some are refusing new NHS patients and others restricting their new intake to pregnant women and children. Abandoned patients have to find a new NHS dentist, seek private treatment or join an insurance scheme.
Dr Joe Rich, of the BDA, said yesterday: "We have great sympathy for members of the public trying to find an NHS dentist. Chronic underfunding by this Government has forced many dentists out of the NHS. The BDA will continue to fight for the preservation of NHS dentistry."
A 10 per cent increase in funding for health service dentistry in each of the next five years was needed to improve access to dental treatment for NHS patients, according to the BDA.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said yesterday that the Government was committed to the NHS dental service and that the number of NHS dentists was higher than four years ago at almost 16,000, up 525 on figures for June 1992. The number of patients registered was 27.4 million, up 100,000 on 1992.
A regional breakdown of people finding it difficult to locate an NHS dentist was as follows: North, 19 per cent; Yorkshire and Humberside, 21 per cent; East Midlands, 26 per cent; East Anglia, 48 per cent; South-east, 52 per cent; London, 33 per cent; South-west, 47 per cent; Wales, 44 per cent; West Midlands, 39 per cent; North-west, 27 per cent; and Scotland, 16 per cent.
The survey was conducted by telephone among a sample of 1,024 respondents earlier this month.Reuse content