Dentistry: Access for Cancer Patients

Part of Antimicrobial Resistance – in Westminster Hall at 5:37 pm on 17 April 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 5:37, 17 April 2024

Yes, 95% of people in Scotland receive NHS dentistry. In England, it is extremely different, and it always has been under Governments of all parties. I would just put that to hon. Members as a piece of information that it is really important to know.

To Yasmin Qureshi, I would highlight SMILE4LIFE, which is a big part of the dental recovery plan. The shadow spokesman, Preet Kaur Gill, also raised the SMILE4LIFE. It focuses on the earliest years, including getting pregnant mums to have their teeth checked, and on good oral health in babies and toddlers, so that by the time they go to school they are used to brushing their teeth twice a day. Good oral health is absolutely critical. In answer to the point raised by both the hon. Member for Bolton South East and the shadow spokesperson, I should say that the Secretary of State and I both made very clear and full responses to the Health and Social Care Committee on the issue of where funding for the dental recovery plan has come from.

Moving on to the things that I actually intended to say, I am absolutely aware that almost everyone in our country has been personally affected by cancer, whether themselves or through a friend or relative, and that includes members of my own family, so I really do understand the issue. Last year, just over 340,000 new cancer patients were diagnosed in England—almost 1,000 every single day or one every 90 seconds. We know that receiving a diagnosis can be terrifying, and we should never lose sight of what those patients and their families are going through. I am really glad that the petition has been brought forward to highlight the terrible disease of oral cancer and the impact on the oral health of those with other cancers.

Before I turn to cancer, I want to quickly outline the steps we have taken to improve access to dentistry across the country since publishing our recovery plan on 7 February. As colleagues will know, access has simply not recovered fast enough since the covid lockdowns, and the issue was my top priority on appointment to this role in November. I am really proud that the plan is creating around 2.5 million additional NHS appointments. We are supporting dentists through a new patient premium to take on patients who have not seen a dentist for two years. We are increasing the minimum value of a unit of dental activity to £28. We are helping patients to find a dentist through a new marketing campaign. We are bringing dental care to our more isolated communities through mobile dental plans and by encouraging dentists to work in underserved areas through golden hellos for 240 dentists. As I have mentioned, the SMILE4LIFE initiative is designed to get in early and help families to understand the importance of good oral hygiene.

Not only that, but we are also making progress to increase the workforce and, in fact, there were 1,352 more dentists doing NHS work in 2022-23 than in 2010-11. It is not the case that dentists are disappearing from the NHS; there are 1,350 more. As announced in the long-term workforce plan, we are going to increase dentistry training places by 40%, so that there are over 1,100 places by 2031-32. We are also increasing training places for dental therapists and hygienists to more than 500 a year by 2031-32. Importantly, we are exploring whether the prospects for a tie-in could ensure that dentists spend a greater proportion of their time delivering NHS dental care, rather than receiving that very expensive training and then perhaps going off to do private dentistry, which means fewer people have access to NHS dentists. It is great to see that, since we published the plan on 7 February, and it went live on 1 March, hundreds more dental practices are already opening their doors to new patients. I look forward to giving the House a full update on the recovery plan shortly, when I will be able to talk to colleagues about the significant increase in the number of patients able to access an NHS dentist.

In the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston’s own integrated care board in Greater Manchester, there is the second highest number of dentists doing NHS work in England. That is almost 71 dentists per 100,000, against a national average of 53.5. I understand that the ICB there is supporting a local initiative called the dental quality access scheme to improve access to NHS dentistry, which requires practices to commit to seeing new NHS patients and, importantly, to providing urgent care access. The practices have been asked to prioritise vulnerable patients and patients with serious conditions, including cancer. That is a fantastic scheme by the ICB, and I encourage other ICBs listening to this debate to follow suit. The scheme brought over 200,000 extra appointments for patients in the last financial year, which I am sure the hon. Member is delighted about.

Turning to the hon. Member’s specific points on charges, the Government responded to a petition on 9 November that requested

“Free Dental Treatment for All Cancer Patients”.

Our reply pointed out that, in 2022-23, 47% of all courses of treatment for NHS dental patients were delivered free of charge, and those who do pay for dentistry are providing an important contribution to NHS budgets. I am sure the hon. Member will know that dentistry charges have been in place almost since the foundation of the NHS 75 years ago. Also, as I have already pointed out, under Governments of every party only about 40% to 50% of adults have ever received NHS dental care.

Despite inflation and other spending pressures, we froze charges between December 2020 and April 2023 to help all our constituents with cost of living pressures, and since then we have raised the charges only proportionately. The hon. Member is right to say that cancer patients face additional financial burdens, and that is why the Government are committed to supporting every patient who faces financial hardship with full or partial exemptions from dental patient charges, which are available through the NHS low income scheme. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North pointed out in the case of Scotland, those also apply to people being treated in hospitals, and that will not change.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston will appreciate that, at a time when NHS budgets are under extreme pressure, it is not feasible to offer free dental care to every patient regardless of their means. We are instead focusing our efforts on continuing to ensure that the most vulnerable are supported to access NHS dentistry, including patients with cancer. In 2021, there were just over 9,100 oral cancers, which was equal to around 3% of all cancers. It is clear that cancer must be caught at the earliest opportunity to give people the best possible chance for recovery. Dentistry plays a crucial role because dentists check for signs of oral cancer in every routine check-up, and it is a contractual requirement for dentists to prioritise patients at a higher risk of oral cancer for more frequent recalls.

Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about prioritising dental appointments for cancer patients, I am aware of instances where patients have faced unacceptable delays to the start of their treatment because of a lack of dentistry appointments. I agree with all hon. Members that such delays are just unacceptable, and we are committed to making sure that everyone who needs a dentist should get one. That is why, along with the raft of measures we are introducing to improve access to NHS dentistry across the country, we are also publishing new guidance to make it crystal clear to every integrated care board that they have a responsibility to commission additional specific services in their local area when they identify problems such as cancer patients being unable to access timely treatment.

As soon as we published our dentistry recovery plan on 7 February, I turned my attention to seeking out the expertise and knowledge of dentists and their representative bodies to understand their perspectives on the need for dental contract reform. I am specifically looking now at what reforms would improve access to dentistry and encourage greater capacity, as well as how at we can consult the dental profession and prepare for further announcements later this year. I can assure hon. Members that, in every decision, I will keep pushing for every patient in our country to have access to the dental care they need, while protecting our cast-iron guarantee to support those most in need with full or partial exemptions from dental patient charges for those on low incomes.