A LEADING dental professor is encouraging decision makers to consider employing more dental therapists in a bid to help tackle the significant backlog of patients waiting for appointments.
Professor Phil Taylor, Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, believes that employing greater numbers of dental therapists, who require a lesser training period than dentists, would provide some much-needed support to the dental sector.
Dental therapists are similar to hygienists, but can also carry out procedures such as fillings or extracting “baby” teeth.
Professor Taylor, who will be attending the two-day British Dental Conference and Dentistry Show in Birmingham in May, made the calls after it was revealed that those waiting for a dentist appointment has reached 40 million in the UK.
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Prof Taylor said: “Following Brexit, lots of Europeans who were previously living and working in the UK have left and moved to other parts of Europe.
“This has severely impacted the dental profession in the UK – for example, 37 per cent of dentists in Dumfries and Galloway have moved out of the country since the UK left the EU.
“Scotland in particular is struggling with a real shortage of dentists, and I believe that we must be more forward thinking when it comes to clearing the current backlog of patients.
“One way of doing this would be to move towards employing not just dentists, but more dental therapists, who are able to carry out a large number of procedures usually carried out by dentists, such as check-ups, hygiene appointments and fillings.”
The most recently available figures for Scotland show that just 100,000 adults were seen by a dentist in December 2021, compared with around 300,000 pre-pandemic in December 2019.
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Waiting list backlogs were exacerbated when dental practices were forced to close for several months at the beginning of the pandemic, and then by strict infection control measures which restricted for a much longer time the types and number of procedures that could be performed on the NHS compared with the private sector.
As of April 1, the Scottish Government introduced a temporary revised payment system which will reimburse dental practitioners at a rate of 170 pence for every £1 of treatment carried out on the NHS in a bid to incentivise dentists to continue operating in the NHS, amid fears that many dentists were on the verge of quitting the profession or converting their surgeries into private-only businesses.
Prof Taylor said dental therapists would be “perfectly capable of doing the work that most patients require”.
He added: “A dentist could be in charge of four or five dental therapists. They would carry out the treatment plan, then the dental therapists would conduct the actual treatment. Some dental therapists can also do orthodontics and specialise in dentures, so they really can cover a lot of areas of treatment.
“My question is, should we focus on training more dentists or should we be actively encouraging more people into becoming dental therapists?
“Dentistry is a very lengthy and costly degree course, and many dental students have experienced delays to their degree courses and training as a result of Covid, so it’s going to take a long time before the workforce gets up to full capacity again.”
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Dental therapists can qualify as a dental nurse first, then – if they hold the necessary Highers or A Levels – complete a degree in oral sciences.
Prof Taylor said more should be done to speed up the process by which foreign nationals can join the NHS.
He said: “If someone is from any country other than the UK and wants to practise dentistry here, they have to undertake an overseas registration by the GMC, and there is currently such a backlog as a result of Covid that very few exams have been carried out recently.”