The majority of dental practices in County Durham and Darlington have closed their doors to new NHS patients, leaving thousands without access to basic healthcare. 

New analysis reveals that Easington is the only constituency in the region where practices haven’t closed their books. A total of 245 practices in the North East are not accepting any new patients out of 253 dental surgeries that responded.

The news comes amid an ongoing crisis, which has resulted in the region being labelled a “dental desert” as patients can’t get an appointment and dentists leave the profession. 

DIY dentistry horror stories have become commonplace in County Durham communities, as adults and children have been forced to pay over the odds for private treatment. People are fitting their own fillings and extracting their own teeth without anaesthetic or professional training.

The Northern Echo previously reported on a man who couldn’t get an NHS dentist appointment and discovered he had an aggressive cancerous tumour earlier this year, but only after paying for it privately.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Sixty-four-year-old Ray, from Durham, told how he feared he may not be here today if he hadn’t paid for the appointment which discovered the tumour in his jaw. 

Patients have also shared experiences of searching for an NHS dentist for four years and still not finding one. Practices in Bishop Auckland and Shildon recently shared their concerns after Bupa announced plans to close two practices in the towns. 

In Darlington, Firthmoor residents have entered their seventh month without a local dental practice after Burgess and Hyder, based in the community centre, closed in March. There are now only 12 NHS dental practices in the town and while some patients have been relocated, thousands do not have access to treatment. 

The town’s Conservative MP Peter Gibson has now called on the NHS Integrated Care Board (ICB) to “pull its finger out” and fix the problem. 

Darlington and Stockton Times: Darlington MP Peter GibsonDarlington MP Peter Gibson (Image: Peter Gibson MP)

The MP says the ICB announced in March it intended to start a formal procurement process for a new NHS contract for the remaining capacity of up to 14,000 Units of Dental Activity (UDAs). However, the process has faced difficulties and has not properly started. 

Mr Gibson said: “When I attended a meeting last week I went ballistic because I’ve effectively been misled. The ICB needs to pull its finger out because they are letting us down and taking us for fools.  

“I am not going to give up banging this drum because it is outrageous how we have been let down in Darlington.”

The formal procurement process is due to start in early 2024, the NHS North East and North Cumbria ICB said. 

Dentistry in the region has been hit with retention and recruitment difficulties alongside huge backlogs from the pandemic. A further 27,5000 dentist appointments are set to be provided by April, the ICB said, and has outlined £7.5m towards securing NHS contracts to tackle the issues. 

The ICB was contacted for further comment. 

In a bid to stop the crisis, Labour has announced a £111m annual dentistry rescue plan so patients can get an NHS dentist. 

The party’s plans include:

  • Funding NHS dental practices to provide 700,000 more urgent appointments, for patients in need of treatments like fillings and root canal.
  • Incentives for new dentists to work in areas with the greatest need, to tackle the emergence of ‘dental deserts’ where no NHS dentists are taking on new patients.
  • Supervised toothbrushing in schools for 3-5 year olds, targeted at the areas with highest childhood tooth decay
  • Reform the dental contract to rebuild the service in the long-run, so NHS dentistry is there for all who need it

Mary Kelly Foy, Labour MP for City of Durham, said: “The City of Durham has become an NHS dental desert, leaving people without the means to pay for private care in a cost of living crisis without access to oral healthcare.

Dentistry is not a luxury or optional extra, my constituents have missed out on early diagnoses for oral cancer because they could not get an NHS appointment.

“The decay of NHS dental services across the North East of England is a badge of shame for the Conservative Party. Labour's fully costed plan to rescue NHS dentistry is excellent new. Reforming the discredited dental contract will bring dentists back to the NHS and will mean lives are saved in Durham and beyond."

However, Peter Gibson says there needs to be clearer information around securing a dentist appointment. 

“Dentists don’t work in the same way as doctors do. You do not have to be registered to be seen by them and this is where part of the problem comes from. There’s something to be done in terms of public education around that. 

“You do not have to be on the list of a dental practice to be seen by them as you are in the same way as a GP practice.”