'Golden opportunity' to tackle Norfolk's dire dentistry desert
- Credit: PA
Dentistry in Norfolk has been in crisis for years but now a solution could have been found, as government ministers agree to look at proposals for the region.
People across Norfolk and Waveney have among the most limited dental access in England, with statistics recently revealing just one NHS dentist for every 2,600 people living in the region.
Now a big step towards solving the county's 'dental desert' has been revealed - a new dentistry school at the University of East Anglia.
The plans are in very early stages but have the support of the region's MPs, who held a meeting earlier this week with NHS chiefs, the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the government minister overseeing dentistry, Maria Caulfield.
North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker said: “It’s probably the most important meeting we have had in the last few years about addressing the dentist shortage in Norfolk.
“We went over the issues with the health minister, the problem is not just NHS dentistry its completely across the board in East Anglia, there is no provision, no training school in East England.
“If we don’t have people training here in the east what hope do we have to pull people across?”
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The North Norfolk MP, who has a personal connection to dentistry thanks to his father being an NHS dentist for 34 years, said that people who study at the UEA tend to stay locally.
“We feel that this is a shovel-ready proposal, the UEA has got the infrastructure and the space - now we need the government to give the green light," Mr Baker added.
“We implored the dentistry minister to take this seriously and she was very understanding.
“This gives us hope that the government are listening and there is a serious case that we can deliver this over the next few years and it can go some way to addressing the issue of getting qualified dentists into Norfolk.
“This is the opportunity, the golden opportunity, to solve the crisis.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from constituents desperate for dentists
“I can’t see that there would be any area more deserving than East Anglia."
Broadland MP Jerome Mayhew said: "Right across Norfolk people are struggling to get access to dentists, whether NHS or private.
"Whilst the situation has been made worse by the Covid backlog, this has been a problem for years.
"I persuaded the NHS to create a new NHS dental contract for Fakenham, only for no dentists to apply for it. Private dental practices are struggling to get recruits too.
"Part of the problem is that you can’t train to be a dentist anywhere in the East of England."
Mr Mayhew said Ms Caulfield agreed to meet with Health Education England, which coordinates the education and training of dentists, to push for more training in Norfolk.
UEA representatives also agreed to provide a pilot document to the minister setting out how the university could act as a training hub.
Mr Mayhew added: “With the closest dental colleges being in either London or Birmingham, this is an exciting opportunity to finally get Norfolk the dental care it deserves.”
This is not the first time a training school for Norfolk has been proposed.
The government previously rejected a plan for a dentistry school at the UEA in 2006. Instead, it chose to back proposals to build a shared dentistry school between the universities of Exeter and Plymouth.
Responding to the plans Alex Stewart, chief executive of Healthwatch Norfolk, said he was pleased to hear that early discussions were under way.
"While this would not solve the immediate issues, there is no doubt attracting and retaining staff in the county is a problem for the county’s network of NHS dentists and anything that would help ease this problem has to be welcomed."
Mr Stewart said it was the number one concern for people contacting them and offered to support the development of the pilot case.
A Department for Health and Social Care spokeswoman said it was working to tackle dentistry backlogs, including through establishing 'centres for dental development' - which provide training for students in later stages of their studies and may be able to help local need.
A UEA spokesperson said: “We’re working with Duncan, Jerome and Peter to discuss with local and national government the possibility of UEA establishing a Dentistry School so as to increase the number of dentists in the region and to strengthen health research on the Norwich Research Park, but it’s early days in the evolution of that conversation.”
How difficult is it to find a dentist?
Last month it was revealed that one in five people in the region have had to resort to private dental treatment after struggling to get NHS appointments.
The study, conducted by Healthwatch, also showed that more than half of the respondents felt NHS dental charges were unfair, while one in 10 said that when they did get NHS appointments, they were overcharged.
Of the more than 2,000 participants nationally, more than a third also said that being unable to access appointments had exacerbated their issues and caused anxiety.
It comes after a separate study from the Association of Dental Groups (ADG) found Norfolk and Waveney to be among the five biggest "dental deserts" nationwide - with just one NHS dentist for every 2,600 people living in the region.
The report reveals just 36pc of adults had seen a dentist in the last two years and a low percentage of children in the area had seen a dentist in the last 12 months, at 34.9pc.
Earlier this year it was also revealed a dental practice set up to cater for the needs of military families at RAF Marham now has more than 2,000 people waiting for treatment.