More money is to be pumped into the personal dental service, which lets local health authorities offer contracts to dentists to carry out care for patients on the NHS. Ministers may also end the requirement for patients to register with a dentist before they can be treated.
The strategy will also switch emphasis from routine check-ups for NHS patients every six months and focus on dental problems. A Whitehall source said: "Do we need these six-monthly check-ups? Perhaps you don't need to register and it would be better if you walked in when you had a problem."
The British Dental Association told the Government NHS dentistry was near collapse and wrote to MPs insisting more resources would be needed to fund a new strategy.
Many dentists opted out of NHS cover under the Tories in protest at low fees and form- filling to qualify for the payments. In many areas, patients have to go to hospital if they want NHS treatment. MPs led by Gordon Prentice, the Labour MP for Pendle, said some had a 100-mile round trip for NHS treatment. The shortage of dentists on the NHS is so acute GPs demand payment for treating patients in pain.
Alan Milburn, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, launched the "Investing in Dentistry" programme 18 months ago when he was a Health minister but it was quietly killed in April, with only about pounds 7m paid from the pounds 19m allocated for improvements to care. He wanted to increase access to NHS care and tackle inequality in health, underpinning the Government's approach. His successor, John Denham, is to announce the new strategy for restoring NHS dental cover in the next month. Talks have started with dentists' leaders on the strategy.
Mr Denham last week visited a walk-in clinic in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and announced 24 new schemes. "We are committed to providing flexible, high-quality primary care services," he said.
The Government is also pioneering walk-in family doctor surgeries in high streets to help those who find it difficult to get to GPs without taking time off work. It believes dentists and doctors could operate more flexible clinics in shopping centres, offering free treatment on the NHS to take pressure off hospital accident and emergency units.Reuse content