The rise of DIY dentistry: Yet again social mobility seems to be in reverse

There is already a marked difference between the teeth of the rich and poor

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The Independent Online

Do-it-yourself dentistry – including home extractions – is on the rise, if reports are to be believed. I have no trouble believing the tale of impoverished Gulf War veteran Ian Boynton about his NHS dentist dilemma because I’ve seen the photos of his 13 rotten teeth, sitting in a dainty yellow pile, that he removed himself with pliers.

Mr Boynton tried arduously to find an NHS dentist who’d remove them by the old-fashioned method, but when that bore no fruit, he removed them in a manner typically reserved for 16th-century pirates or crystal meth addicts on YouTube.

Dr Nigel Carter OBE, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, has issued a strict warning to anyone thinking of copying Mr Boynton. “DIY dentistry is both dangerous and unnecessary,” he says, “There are too many senseless examples of people either pulling out the wrong tooth or ending up with an infection.”

 My grimmest thought when hearing stories like Mr Boynton’s is what levels will austerity take desperate people to next? Shoved to the back of the queue for gallbladder removal? Well how hard can that really be? Didn’t Brits remove their own appendixes in wartime Japanese POW camps by illegally brewing rice wine to “numb the pain”? Pass the Smirnoff and the breadknife. Quick someone, Google laparoscopic cholecystectomy!

 But although Mr Boynton’s self-inflicted act may seem extreme, foolish even, I can empathise. The combination of extreme toothache, very limited finances and terrifying dental bill estimates, plus years of bickering with the reception staff at NHS clinics could break the spirit of even the most lucid soul.

It’s no coincidence that sales of kits to repair loose crowns, fillings and caps are also on the increase. If it’s down to a choice between £51.30 for an NHS filling or £4.65 for a DenTek kit from Amazon which claims to do the same job, then the skint and the frugal shouldn’t be gasped at for saving pennies.

And besides, at heart, we are a nation of DIY dentists. In the 1970s and 1980s children regularly had wobbly teeth removed by well-meaning adults. The offending molar would be tied to a door knob with darning thread and the door slammed, in an act that would nowadays come under the umbrella term “child abuse”.

Toothcare has always felt unaffordable to the working classes. It is currently £18.50 for a dental check-up, before any flaw is found. When faced with Band 3 palatal veneer work we are a nation which has always preferred to dose up on aspirins and survive on soup than pay £200 for a session of squealing drill torture.

We have, I sense, lost our impetus to be outraged by the state of Britain’s dental services. My last NHS dentist operated out of what could be described as an outhouse made of MDF. For appointments at 8am he’d regularly swagger in without apology at 8.40am, clad in eye-wateringy snug Spandex cycling shorts, then begin his round of emergency appointments re-gluing crowns into the glum faces of patients that he’d fitted poorly before.

The other NHS dentist in this practice, whose quiff and tipped collar shirts gave him a strong resemblance to the country singer Lyle Lovett, would finish his consultations with a raised Che Guevara fist and the farewell cry of “Rock On!” His fillings didn’t stay in either. After several run-ins with these people – at £50 or £100 or more a time – one can’t be blamed for spying a packet of DenTemp Cherry Flavour dental cement for £4 and thinking, “just how hard can this really be?”

Obviously affairs of the gob are very different when you opt out and go private, which I have done several times. Not specifically better, but certainly different. In private dentist world, one meets all the ambitious, big dollar-making, punctual dentists who favour a nice, prim white coat and wouldn’t dream of presenting their schlong to you at eye level through cycling shorts. Periodontal cleaning, deep hygiene checks, Invisalign recommendations and whitenings will be thrust upon you – at astronomical prices – as if you’d literally have to be some sort of savage to decline.

I popped into one private clinic surgery for a quick consultation about making a front tooth “less wonky” and left two hours later with a full payment plan to remove some teeth, break my jaw and reset it at the cost of around £14,000. I ran away.

Once you slip outside NHS dentistry, the clinics are more fragrant, certainly, but ethics-wise you are in the wild west, surrounded by experts who absolutely cannot and will not stop until you resemble one of the Osmond family.

The future of British teeth, to me at least, feels shaky. There already is a marked difference between the adult teeth of the rich and the poor in Britain. One can simply flip open my mouth to see the evidence of my less than affluent childhood: the silver fillings, the gaps and errant molars. In the 1970s a perfect Hollywood smile was never something the working classes aspired to obsessively. But how odd to think we may be slipping down a route in 2015 where the poorest working classes might simply no longer have teeth at all?

Carmel McConnell, the founder of Magic Breakfast, estimates that 500,000 children attend school every day too hungry to learn. At a point where growth – mentally and physically – is vital, children are starved of calories. Meanwhile, childhood obesity has quadrupled over the last 30 years, leading to many rotten teeth having to be extracted.

A confident smile is the key to so many of life’s basic needs; finding work, finding friends, finding love. Are we moving towards an era where only the affluent with their pretty gobs will be truly acceptable in public life?

Yet again social mobility seems to be in reverse gear. It’s a fact that will forever leave me down in the mouth.