In 2023/24 dentistry was made the number one priority in Healthwatch South Tyneside’s Operational Plan following a substantial increase in the number of people asking us for help or sharing their experiences of trying to access NHS dental care.

In response we spoke face-to-face with patients at local groups and with dental practice managers, were contacted by patients seeking advice and received more than 200 responses to an online survey.

Ten of the 30 people we met at visits to eight groups as part of our ‘Have Your Say’ project said they were happy with the dental service they received and received regular check-ups. Comments including praise for dentists who accommodated specific needs, such as being seen in a ground floor room and carrying out home visits.

However, delayed treatment and lengthy waiting times was the second most frequent theme, with unexpected charges and being unable to register to be seen at a practice for NHS dental care or being de-registered from a practice following little or no notification also raised.

The feedback from 11 out of 12 members of the public who contacted Healthwatch over the past year asking for support and advice was negative in nature, stating an inability to find an NHS dentist, deregistration with little or no notice, difficulty with dentures and being unhappy with care.

We worked in collaboration with the Healthwatch network in the North East and North Cumbria (NENC) and the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System (ICB) to gather evidence from people who have accessed dental services.

More than 3,500 responses were received to the survey across the region, including 215 in South Tyneside. Healthwatch South Tyneside generated these responses by a sponsored social media campaign, mystery shopper phone calls and getting paper copies of the survey completed during visits to local groups.

Staff also contacted 16 of the 25 dental practices in South Tyneside by telephone and spoke face to face with three practice managers, responsible for six local dental surgeries, and one other via email and telephone.

Dental practice staff were very candid in their response to our questions. Issues they highlighted included:

  • A high increase in demand from unregistered patients
  • Dental practice waiting lists exceeding well over 100 patients
  • Non-attendance is high, despite reminders being sent to patients
  • A number of dental practices are not registered with the NHS 111 service to offer emergency appointments
  • Shortage of NHS dentists and dental nurses, meaning surgeries are left vacant up to five days per week
  • The profession is finding it difficult to recruit NHS dentists as an increasing number of dentists and dental practices are leaving the NHS and going private
  • NHS dentist remuneration is seen as the barrier to retention and recruitment of dentists and dental nurses
  • Reception staff regularly receive verbal abuse.

Following all the feedback we have received from both patients and practices, our recommendations to commissioners and providers of dental services in South Tyneside include:

  • Clear upfront explanation of costs should be given if treatment is not funded for NHS patients.
  • A family approach to registration might enable whole families to be looked after at one surgery.
  • Introduce a robust system for bringing dentists from overseas as the current system is seen to be causing delays in recruitment.
  • ICB (Integrated Care Board) to consider additional funding for school programmes, giving children early access to dental education and care to reduce oral health inequalities and improve oral health in children under the age of five.
  • NHS England to actively encourage all practices to implement appointment reminder services to reduce the level of DNAs.
  • NHS England to encourage a uniform system for de-registration, where the patient is kept informed of the process.

We would like to thank all patients and practitioners, as well as the groups who met with us, for giving us this valuable feedback on dental services in South Tyneside.

The full report can be read here: