Leading article

Action needed on dental waiting lists

While the knock-on effect of coronavirus on the treatment and care of cancer patients has been well documented, information is only now beginning to emerge about how the pandemic has impacted on other healthcare services.

New figures revealed by The Irish News show that half a million patients have not been seen by dentists since the start of the pandemic in March last year.

A two-tier system has begun to emerge, with dental practices in economically deprived areas, where oral disease tends to be higher, under much more pressure.

In an interview with this paper, Chief Dental Officer Michael Donaldson described the impact of the pandemic on dentistry as “profound”.

During the first wave, all dentistry was paused as surgeries struggled to obtain the personal protective equipment needed for work in a close, face-to-face environment.

Yet at the same time, many people relied on alcohol and sugary treats - known to cause poor oral health - to help them cope with the pressures of the pandemic.

Although dentistry services did resume, there is no prospect of dentists being able to treat more people at present.

With surgeries only able to work at around 40 per cent capacity, according to Mr Donaldson it could take up some time before dentists are able to see the same number of patients they did pre-pandemic.

Waiting times for a range of health conditions in Northern Ireland are already the worst in the UK.

Health Minister Robin Swann told the assembly last month that too many people are waiting "too long for treatment”.

And he warned that without significant and recurrent funding, it could take up to a decade to tackle waiting lists.

Mr Donaldson's assurance that the pandemic has not wiped out long fought-for improvements in oral health is to be welcomed.

But it is disturbing that five-year-old children in the most deprived areas are around four times more likely to have dental decay, compared with children in affluent postcodes.

Dental has long been a ‘Cinderella' of healthcare provision, often overlooked in favour of other services.

It is clear that more support needs to be given to dental practices, particularly those in deprived areas to help them tackle long patient waiting lists.

With fears that a third coronavirus wave will put more pressure on our beleaguered health service, it is imperative that structures are put in place now to help dental surgeries treat patients in pain.

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