COVID-19 pandemic: Appointment backlog hurting dentists

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COVID-19 pandemic: Young dentists concerned, doubtful about their future in dentistry

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on young dentists in the UK and many are now doubtful about their future in the dental field. (Image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock)

LONDON, UK: Dental Protection says that the vast backlog in patient treatments—a lingering consequence of the pandemic—is negatively affecting the well-being of nearly half of the young dentists in the UK. The organisation surveyed UK dentists having up to five years of work experience and said that the findings were particularly worrying.

Dental Protection said that its snapshot survey of more than 2,000 dentists who had qualified in the last five years showed that 37% of respondents were worried about the impact of COVID-19 on their personal well-being. Close to half (49%) said that treatment backlogs were affecting their mental health, and one-third said that pent-up demand was resulting in the need to work additional hours. Just under half (49%) said that they did not feel optimistic about their future in the dental field.

Comments from anonymous respondents drew attention to the fact that the situation was resulting in negative interactions between patients and oral health professionals. “The backlog is a worry because patients take it out on the dental staff and not the NHS who set how we work within the system,” one young dentist commented. Another said: “I can’t cope anymore. I’m moving practice but if the situation with people’s rudeness doesn’t improve I will be leaving healthcare.”

Dr George Wright, senior dental educator at Dental Protection, said in a press release that the pandemic had led to a “plethora of challenges” for dentists, such as the expectation that they adhere to the public health guidelines that have affected the operating capacity of dental clinics, resulting in treatment backlogs and, consequently, patient complaints.

Dr Wright said: “We know this is challenging for members, both from a professional and personal perspective. The cumulative effects of stress have affected the well-being of the whole dental team—and as this survey shows, the impact on the mental well-being of newly qualified dentists is also significant.” He emphasised that it was particularly worrying that nearly half of the young dentists surveyed did not feel positive about their future in dentistry. “We know that clearing the backlog is an overwhelming prospect for the whole dental team, but it is imperative that these young dentists—the future of the profession—feel supported and engaged by the whole system so they can continue in this rewarding profession,” he added.

NHS plan may not alleviate stress in the short term

The Dental Protection survey was conducted between 18 November 2021 and 4 December 2021 and predated the NHS’s January announcement of its plan for addressing the backlog.

The service said that it will put muscle behind efforts to clear the backlog by injecting an extra £50.0 million (€60.4 million) into the creation of new appointments. It said that the cash would create up to 350,000 additional NHS dental appointments, for which vulnerable groups will be prioritised. These groups include children as well as people with autism, learning disabilities or mental health problems, according to an NHS news bulletin.

Naturally, funding alone will not provide dental care, and NHS dentists will need to fill the extra appointments by working more hours. The NHS said: “Dentists involved in the scheme will be paid more than a third on top of their normal sessional fee for delivering this care outside of core hours, such as early morning and weekend work.”

Commenting on the “much-needed boost”, Minister for Primary Care Maria Caulfield said: “Through the pandemic, we have prioritised urgent dental needs, vulnerable patients and free treatment for children and thanks to the hard work of staff, the delivery of urgent care is back to pre-pandemic levels. We are now working with the dental sector to recover and reform services and this £50 million boost will help with that recovery.”

Dr Wright encouraged young dentists who were experiencing stress to contact Dental Protection’s counselling service, which is available to the organisation’s members around the clock.

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