Leading UK dental provider to cut 85 clinics, citing inflation, energy prices and lack of dentists

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Leading UK dental provider to cut 85 clinics, citing inflation, energy prices and lack of dentists

Bupa Dental Care will close or merge dozens of its UK clinics this year, affecting 1,200 staff members and tens of thousands of patients. (Image: Chrispictures/Shutterstock)

LONDON, UK: Bupa Dental Care will sell or merge 85 of its UK dental clinics, owing to increased costs and the dire condition of National Health Service (NHS) dentistry. The move is deeply troubling for patients living in areas that are already underserved by the NHS, and it shows that private companies are struggling to provide NHS dental care.

The provider of private and NHS dental care announced in March that it would consolidate its UK dental portfolio, listing 40 clinics that it plans to close or merge and 45 clinics that it plans to sell. The company said that the difficult decision to consolidate was made in response to increased running costs and an inability to recruit enough dentists to deliver NHS dental care. It said that the recruitment problems had persisted at many of its clinics “for months, and in some cases, years”, adding that the root cause was “industry-wide challenges of the NHS contract model, and increased demand and complexity of care since the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Bupa Dental Care General Manager Mark Allan commented: “As a leading dental provider in the UK, our priority must be to enable patients to receive the care they need. For the majority of affected practices, this decision will allow commissioners to procure local providers for the NHS contract, tailoring services and investment to the needs of the local community, thereby providing a better opportunity for patients to continue access to NHS dental services.”

Allan added: “We fully understand the impact today’s decision has on our patients and our people within these practices. This decision has not been taken lightly and closure is a last resort. Despite our continued efforts, the dental industry is facing a number of significant and systemic challenges that are placing additional pressure on providing patient care, in particular recruiting dentists to deliver NHS dental care.”

“This decision has not been taken lightly and closure is a last resort”— Mark Allan, Bupa Dental Care

The forthcoming consolidation will affect 1,200 staff members and reduce Bupa’s portfolio of dental clinics in the country to 365, according to The Guardian. Bupa said that all of its dental offices in the UK and Ireland will remain open until later this year, when the changes would begin to take effect.

One of the clinics slated for closure is Bupa Dental Care York—a private and NHS dental practice with around 7,000 patients and 27 staff members. The clinic will treat its last patients on 30 June. One patient, who wished to remain anonymous, told local newspaper the York Press that the practice team had been shocked and confused by the announcement. “They need an explanation from Bupa as to why this practice is closing, as it is well established, has no problem recruiting staff and they think that it is profitable,” the patient said. Bupa later told the newspaper that recruitment of NHS dentists was the reason for the closure.

The scheduled closure of two County Durham clinics—namely, the Bishop Auckland Market Place and Shildon dental practices—has also led to concern. Lesley Coates, who has been an NHS patient at the Market Place clinic for 27 years, told newspaper the Northern Echo that she stood “absolutely no chance” of being accepted at nearby clinics. “Bishop Auckland and Shildon are not affluent areas,” Coates told the newspaper. “Most people will not be able to afford private dental care. Is that it? Are my teeth now just going to rot and fall out? I have got nowhere to go,” she lamented.

Once the pride of post-war England, the NHS was whittled down by successive neo-liberal UK governments, and working in its dental service has become less attractive to clinicians. Dental Tribune International (DTI) has previously reported on what are now referred to as dental deserts and the beleaguered service’s failure to cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and to provide equity of care. DTI reported in May that British Dental Association statistics showed that more than half of dentists in England had reduced their NHS commitment since the start of the pandemic by an average of 27%. A recent analysis carried out by the association indicates that at least eleven million people had an unmet need for dentistry last year.

Bupa employs 82,000 people in a range of countries and served over forty-three million patients in 2022, according to its annual report. In that year, Bupa’s global and UK business generated revenues of £3.7 billion (€4.2 billion), representing a year-on-year increase of 9%; however, underlying profit for the region declined by 58%, owing to an impairment of £117 million in its UK dental business. Bupa offloaded its New Zealand dental business in 2022, divesting 22 clinics to Australian-based Abano Healthcare, which operates dental clinics in New Zealand under the brand Lumino The Dentists.

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