Is There a Shortage of Dentists in the UK?

The number of practising dentists in the UK has been declining over the years. In 2020, there were approximately 41,300 dental practitioners in the UK. While in In 2015, roughly 46 thousand salaried dentists had been employed in the UK, whether in the private sector, the NHS, or both. Does this mean a decrease in the demand for dental talent, or is it due to the dental workforce shortage? Let’s take a look at the statistics.

According to the NHS, over 24,684 dentists performed activity during 2019-2020 – showing an increase of 139 compared with the previous year. This would imply an improvement in the access to dental healthcare to the Britishers, right? That’s not the case! In 2018, the average number of NHS dentists available for 10,000 people were 5.3 – much lesser than in Italy, Germany or France. This has led to a considerable burden on the UK healthcare system, with patients having to wait for many months before seeing their dentists. So, there is undoubtedly a shortage of dentists in the UK.

. According to the British Dental Association, 68% of the dental practices in England alone struggled to fill – and retain – vacant posts for dentists in 2018. The situation is even direr in rural areas such as Cornwall and Devon, where it took an average of 162 days to fill a vacant dentist’s post in 2020. It has been estimated that due to the shortage of the dental workforce, over eight million people had been waiting for their appointments, with 1,500,000 patients on the waiting list in London alone.  

There is a Shortage of Dentists – But Why?

The current shortage of the dental workforce in the UK can be ascribed to various factors.

Brexit

The UK left the European Union in January 2020, with the post-Brexit transitioning phase ending on 31st December 2020. In addition to affecting trade with other EU countries, Brexit has also impacted the dental industry. According to the statistics provided by the General Dental Council (GDC), around 17% of the currently registered dental professionals in the UK are EU/EEA citizens. The BDA estimates that over 22% of the NHS care is provided by EU/EEA dentists.

Before Brexit, these foreign dentists did not require a visa to work in the UK, and their qualifications were automatically recognised. But, things have changed now; dentists trained in the EU/EEA countries will now need to go through a points-based system to acquire a working visa and seek dental jobs. Besides, they will not need to get their qualifications equivocated according to UK standards. Not only this, dental practices will now have to “sponsor” foreign dental talent to hire them, making things more complicated. All these factors have created hurdles and difficulties for foreign dentists, which have resulted in a decrease in the number of dentists in the UK post-Brexit.

An Increasing Number of Dentists Leaving the Profession

The number of dentists in the UK is also declining as an increasing number of dental professionals are either retiring or trying their luck in other areas. In a 2017 BDA survey, over 53% of the newly qualified NHS dentists (under 35) stated they had plans to leave the NHS. Over 10% of UK dentists intended to move overseas, and a similar number intended to retire or switch to another industry entirely. NHS Digital data shows that dental practitioners in Wales and England suffered from a 35% drop in their revenues over the last decade, with newer dentists having an average income fall by £20,000. 

COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the difficulties of the dental profession. In an open letter to the Department of Health and Social Care, BDA chair Eddie Couch has urged the authorities to produce a capital funding package for the dental industry.

“COVID restrictions have left dentists firefighting with huge backlogs, unable to see more than a fraction of our former patient numbers, especially in the NHS,’ said  Eddie Crouch.

Between March and September 2020, the dentists performed around 14.5 million fewer dental treatments compared with the same period in 2019, mainly because of the COVID-19 restrictions. The BDA estimated that this figure could cross 19 million at the end of the year 2020. To see more patients, dentists need to buy specialised equipment to change the airflow in their surgeries – to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

While this will help the dentists increase their patient flow, the initial cost of this system is unaffordable for many. The overall result is an increased financial burden on the patients, forcing them to close their practices or move to another business. Statistics provided by the GDC show that 58% of dental professionals expect a mean 43% decrease in their income in 2021.

One of the primary reasons is the unequal distribution of the workforce, with rural areas suffering more than the urban communities. Bupa, a private healthcare company, decided to closed two of its dental practice in North Wales permanently in February 2021, citing a local shortage of dentists as the reason for their closure. Similar conditions can be seen in other rural localities in the UK.

Conclusion

From the above discussion, it implies that there is no shortage of jobs in dentistry. There are several vacancies for salaried dentists available in the UK, especially in the less developed areas. It all depends on whether the dentists are willing to relocate to get hired. By offering more incentives to the fresh dental graduates to work in the rural areas and removing the post-Brexit hurdles for hiring EU/EEA dentists, the shortage of dentist and the resultant pressure on the UK healthcare system can be eased.  

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