Dental Health: Older People

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:59 pm on 27th February 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire 7:59 pm, 27th February 2019

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us his personal family experience of this issue.

There have been some welcome developments over the last few months, including the recently published NHS long-term plan highlighting oral health as one of the priorities for NHS England as it rolls out a new “Enhanced health in care homes” programme across the country. However, I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to five particular areas in which more could usefully be done: training for health and social care professionals; access to dental services; data; regulation; and the social care Green Paper.

First, on training, health and social care professionals regularly do a brilliant job of caring for older people, but as I have mentioned, oral health is one issue that can easily fall between the cracks, particularly if someone is living with a range of other health conditions that also require care and attention. One example of this is oral care plans. Ideally, whenever someone is admitted as a resident to a care home, their oral health needs should be considered as part of their initial health assessment. Those needs should then be reflected in an oral care plan that all their carers are aware of and that will, for example, set out whether the resident needs extra help brushing their teeth.

There is some good guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, but this can often be overlooked. In Public Health England’s research in north-west England, 57% of residential care home managers said that they did not have an oral care policy, and one in 10 said that an oral health assessment was not undertaken at the start of care provision. Knowing how to provide good oral care is especially important when it comes to supporting those with more complex needs. For example, for those with dementia, electric toothbrushes can sometimes be quite intimidating, and it makes a big difference if a carer knows that they should use a manual toothbrush when helping with tooth brushing. More broadly, if someone who is living with dementia refuses oral care, this can become an obstacle to maintaining good oral health, so it is important that carers understand how to manage these situations, ideally with input from a dental care professional.

Equally, for those with dentures, it is important that training and procedures are in place to minimise the risk of a denture getting lost, even if this is a simple thing such as ensuring that they are kept in a jar by the bedside when not in use. A lost denture takes weeks to replace, and this can be a devastating experience for an older person who relies on them to eat and speak. This is particularly sensitive if someone is coming to the end of their life, when it may not be possible to manufacture a replacement in time as they spend their remaining days with loved ones. An understanding of good denture care is particularly important in these situations.

Improving awareness of oral health among health and care professionals should therefore be a priority, and was a key recommendation in the Faculty of Dental Surgery’s 2017 report. This highlighted schemes such as the Mouth Care Matters programme, in which mouth care leads are recruited to provide oral care training to staff in hospitals and care homes, and I would be interested to know from the Minister whether there were any plans to replicate such initiatives nationwide.

Secondly, ensuring that older people can access dental services when they need them is essential. It is not uncommon for people to think that if someone has no teeth, they cannot be experiencing pain or other oral problems. Sadly, this is not the case and they should still have an oral check-up once a year, not least because the majority of cases of oral cancer occur in people over 50. There are all too many tragic instances of an older person being diagnosed with oral cancer too late—the saddest two words in the English language—simply because they had not seen a dentist in a number of years. Attending a dental appointment can be a particular challenge for those with reduced mobility—for example, if they are unable to climb stairs to reach a dental practice on the first floor—in which case, domiciliary visits are vital. However, evidence suggests that access to domiciliary dental care can be challenging, particularly for those living in care homes or supported housing, and I would appreciate the Minister’s thoughts on how we can address this.

In 2015, Healthwatch Bolton reported that it was easier for a local care home resident to get access to a hairdresser than to a dentist. In 2016, Healthwatch Kent reported that care homes had told it about accessibility problems for wheelchair users within dental practices. In 2016, Healthwatch Lancashire reported that care home staff said:

“The residents don’t get regular checks;
they are only seen when there is a problem.”

Healthwatch Derby was concerned about the lack of information for social care providers about how to access dental services for their residents. While the commitment in the NHS long-term plan to

“ensure that individuals are supported to have good oral health” in care homes under the “Enhanced health in care homes” section is welcome, there is no mention of a similar commitment for older people who use domiciliary care agencies. Those people should not be forgotten, so what do the Government intend to do about that for domiciliary care agency users under the NHS long-term plan?

Thirdly, the intelligence around older people’s oral health is quite limited, making it difficult to build a full picture of the level of need or assess the barriers that older people face in accessing dental care. The most immediate action that could be taken to address that would be for the Government to commission a new adult dental health survey. It is one of the few resources to provide detailed, national-level data on standards of oral health among older people, and it is a key reference for many commissioners, policy makers and dental professionals. The survey has been conducted every 10 years since 1968, but the last edition was published in 2009, so a new one is due. However, the Government have yet to give any indication of when or if a new survey will be taking place, which is causing increasing concern within the dental profession, so an update on that would be most welcome.

There are other steps that would help to improve our understanding of such issues. For example, NHS Digital publishes a regular set of NHS dental statistics for England, which reports on the proportion of children aged zero to 17 who attended an NHS dentist in the preceding 12 months, as well as the proportion of adults aged 18 and over who attended an NHS dentist in the past two years. That data provides a useful measure of access, and expanding the figures to include attendance rates for older people would help us to develop a clearer picture of whether there are particular groups or areas where access to an NHS dentist is a problem.