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Report: Investors favouring private UK dental practices as faith in NHS reform declines

Though problems persist with the provision of NHS dental services, the average sale price of a UK dental practice increased by 8.6% in 2021. (Image: BGStock72/Shutterstock)

LONDON, UK: Though the National Health Service (NHS) is considered an exemplar of what a public health model can achieve, its dental arm has increasingly come under fire because of staff shortages, patient backlogs and persistent underfunding. A new review of the UK dental practice market by specialist business property adviser Christie & Co. has found that, whereas independent purchasers of dental practices favour clinics with an existing NHS contract, there has been a sizeable increase in group investors focusing on purely private practices.

The report evaluated the UK dental practice market across 2021 and the first half of 2022. According to the analysis, approximately 1,300 dental practices are put up for sale in a year, and around 520 are sold in a 12-month period. In 2021, a return to pre-pandemic levels of investment activity saw the average sale price of a UK dental practice increase by 8.6%, and this trend has thus far continued into 2022.

As detailed in the report, 77% of independent purchasers opted for dental practices that offered either purely NHS dentistry services or a mix of private and NHS dentistry. Although this figure was 78% for group investors, Christie & Co. noted that there had been a clear shift in this demographic’s behaviour away from purchasing NHS-centred practices and towards those led by private dentistry.

“So far in 2022, dentistry continues to be a highly attractive sector for investors, helped by the increased awareness of oral health and the boom in cosmetic and aesthetic treatments,” commented Paul Graham, head of dental at Christie & Co., in a press release. “Despite some significant headwinds—not least rising interest rates, geopolitical and economic uncertainty and increasing workforce challenges within the profession—the market has remained robust.”

Increasing frustration noted among NHS providers

As part of the report, Christie & Co. conducted interviews with clients from the corporate, group and independent customer bases. Although there was general agreement regarding the need for NHS dentistry and its value to society, NHS providers expressed their frustration at the mounting issues facing the public dental service—particularly in England, where these services “are being privatised by stealth”, a respondent said.

As Dental Tribune International has previously reported, an estimated 3,000 UK dentists are believed to have ceased offering NHS dental services since the beginning of the pandemic, even more having reduced their NHS commitment over the same period. In a summary of the findings of its interviews, Christie & Co. noted that NHS dental providers were unified in their belief that urgent reform is needed for NHS dentistry, but expressed pessimism that this reform would be achieved anytime soon.

“We either provide a lot more care for fewer patients or a lot less for everybody—you can’t have both in the current funding settlement,” remarked one respondent. Another said that “it is becoming impossible to deliver quality care at the current level of funding”.

NHS England’s recent announcement that all NHS primary care dental contract holders are to restore their dental services to pre-pandemic levels from July is likely to place added pressure on these practices.

Editorial note:

The report, titled Dental Market Review 2022, is available through Christie & Co.’s website.

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