They come over here and fix our teeth: foreign workers help to ease dentist crisis

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Half of all dentists newly recruited to the NHS are immigrant workers who qualified abroad, according to figures released yesterday.

The majority of the 2,200 dentists entering the profession in the past year came from eastern Europe, underlining Britain's growing reliance on workers from the European Union.

Poland, the country of origin for one in five of the new entrants, made the biggest contribution to the upsurge in foreign dentist numbers. The increase - up 28 per cent to 21,000 since 1997 - also appears to have allowed more people to register with a dentist.

Data published by the NHS Information Centre yesterday shows the number of people on the books of an NHS practitioner rose by 500,000 - a 2.4 per cent rise year-on-year.

Patients who visited the dentist completed 33.2 million courses of treatment during the year, the highest number in 10 years. Treatment for children has increased significantly in recent years, from 6.1 million in 2004 to 7.4 million in 2006, while the number of adult courses of treatment have fallen from 27 million in 2004 to 25.8 million in 2006.

More young women are also joining the dental profession. While just over a third (37 per cent) of all dentists are female, figures for dentists under 30 reveal that more than a half are women (53 per cent).

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "The NHS successfully recruited more than 1,000 extra dentists from abroad in 2005 but our focus now is on increasing the number of home-grown dentists in the longer term.

"The number of dental students is already increasing, with latest returns showing an increase of 28 per cent since October 2003. We have already created 100 new permanent places for dental students and plan to open a new dental school in the South-west."

Professor Denise Lievesley, chief executive of the Information Centre, commented: "These figures provide a long-term view on dental workforce and activity under the old NHS dental contract. Major changes in the NHS contract came into force from 1 April 2006 and the impact of this on dental provision will be reflected in a report to be published by the Information Centre in October."

But the British Dental Association (BDA) said that the figures needed to be considered in context.

The BDA's chief executive, Peter Ward said yesterday: "The figures published today don't tell the full story, with many patients still struggling to find a dentist. We welcome dentists from overseas but this is only a short-term solution to the shortage of dentists caused by poor workforce planning in the past.

"We must also wait to see the impact of the new NHS contract, given that one in 10 of the new contracts were rejected by dentists and around one in four are in dispute."

This week, further figures released by the Home Office showed 427,095 workers had arrived in Britain from the eight ex-Communist countries between their accession and the end of June this year.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU on 1 May 2004, along with Malta and Cyprus.

The total on the worker registration scheme included 264,000 Poles.