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Decline in NHS dentistry lower than predicted

DENTISTS have reduced the number of patients they treat on the National Health Service, although the decline is less dramatic than predicted in the wake of the cut in fees paid by the Government.

But figures published today show that there has been a sharp increase in certain key categories of patients who may now find it difficult to find a dentist willing to treat them on the NHS.

In particular, the proportion of Britain's 18,000 dentists accepting new registrations of adults paying the NHS minimum has dropped since June when it stood at 87.9 per cent to 51.9 per cent.

Those treating children fell from 98.6 per cent to 92.4 per cent, with the proportion accepting adults exempt from charges declining more steeply, from 93.3 per cent to 79.7 per cent.

The Department of Health maintained that there was no evidence to suggest that anyone wanting NHS treatment was finding particular difficulty, although, because of the 'industrial action', family health service authorities were assisting those in need to find an alternative.

Registrations had now topped 30 million and were continuing to rise at about 500,000 a month, the result of the new dentists' contracts introduced in 1990, which encouraged the launch of patient recruiting drives, a spokesman said. But the greater numbers demanding more treatment led costs to soar with the result that negotiations over fees to be paid to dentists broke down in the spring and led the Government to impose a 7 per cent cut in July.

A committee of inquiry headed by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield is currently looking at a number of issues, including the controversy over fees, and is likely to make its recommendations in December.

There were predictions that after the fee cut many dentists would abandon the NHS for private practice. This has not happened, though it is still early days and it is estimated that it would take six to 12 months to set up privately.

Evidence garnered by the British Dental Association, which collated today's quarterly survey figures, shows that some dentists reduced their commitment to the NHS almost immediately, while others are waiting for the outcome of the Bloomfield Inquiry, or planning a shift over a period of time.

Michael Watson, head of practitioner services at the BDA, said: 'Our members were advised not to take action as a political gesture, but to examine their practices carefully to see if a move out of the NHS was the right one. They appear to be taking this advice.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- DENTISTS TREATING NHS PATIENTS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Dentists accepting new patients NHS (%) Private(%) Under 18 92.4 (98.6) 7.6 (1.4) Over 18 exempt 79.7 (93.3) 20.3 (6.7) Over 18 paying 51.9 (87.9) 48.1 (12.1) Treating Existing Patients NHS Private Under 18 99.0 (99.5) 1.0 (0.5) Over 18 exempt 96.3 (95.9) 3.7 (4.1) Over 18 paying 87.0 (90.5) 13.0 (9.5) Quarterly survey, previous quarter (April to June) in brackets -----------------------------------------------------------------