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NHS dentist shortage could increase mouth cancer deaths

A lack of access to dentists will cost lives, as mouth cancers are not being spotted or treated early enough, the Oral Health Foundation has warned.

Mouth cancers led to the deaths of more than 3,000 people in the UK in 2021 – up 46% from 2,075 a decade ago, according to a recent report by the Oral Health Foundation.

The report states in England alone, the number of NHS patients seen in the last 24 months has declined by 26% compared to before the pandemic.

‘Dental check-ups are a key place for identifying the early stage of mouth cancer,’ said Nigel Carter, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation.

‘With access to NHS dentistry in tatters, we fear that many people with mouth cancer will not receive a timely diagnosis,’ he said.

Ray Glendenning, 64, thought a very painful swelling in his jaw was caused by one of his teeth - but he did not have an NHS dentist.

He tried to find a dentist and book an emergency appointment.

‘There was an NHS dentist taking on NHS patients - but there were 800 people on the waiting list, so basically waiting for people to die to take new patients on,’ he said.

When Ray finally paid £50 to see a private dentist, he was diagnosed with an aggressive tumour. He is convinced the decision saved his life.

Just weeks after being diagnosed, Ray had 16 hours of surgery to remove the tumour and a new jaw was formed out of bone and muscle from his leg.

‘It's the system that's broken - not the individual dentists,’ said Ray.

The report warns that nearly two-in-three (63%) patients are diagnosed in stages III and IV, and this late diagnosis has a ‘severe effect’ on a person’s ‘quality of life and chances of survival’. A dwindling NHS dental workforce and rising dental costs are major causes of this crisis.

The Foundation has called for more investment in NHS dentistry, free dental check-ups for mouth cancer patients and training of health professionals to look for symptoms of mouth cancer to reduce mouth cancer mortality.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. The Department of Health and Social Care said progress was being made to boost NHS dental services. It said 1.7 million more adults received NHS dental care between June 2021 and June 2023 compared to between June 2020 and June 2022.

‘We’re boosting the number of dentists and we’re looking at how we improve the contract. We have already made a number of changes,’ said Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay.