Non-availability of GP and dental appointments is scandalous – Jayne Dowle

IT’S all very well Matt Hancock looking smug about the largely successful vaccine rollout.

When will GP surgeries resume face to face appointments?
When will GP surgeries resume face to face appointments?

Before he gets too carried away, I’d like to bring to his attention the parts of the NHS that he seems to have forgotten about, in particular dentistry and GP services.

Patients in agony waiting for dental treatment have contributed to a 22 per cent rise in complaints about this vital arm of the NHS between January and March this year, according to Healthwatch England, a health and social care campaigning organisation.

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Some people have been told to expect a wait of up to three years just to secure an appointment. Mr Hancock should hang his head in shame. I daresay South Africa, where my own excellent NHS dentist hails from, has shorter queues.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock.

I signed up with a new NHS practice two years ago after a decade of paying over the odds for private care at the dual private/NHS practice where I took my children for regular six-month check-ups.

I was wary at first, but I can’t say I have noticed anything to judge between the two in terms of care.

These days, I’m clinging onto my NHS dentist like a drowning woman holds onto a lifebuoy. Even when I broke a crown last summer, when Covid restrictions for any medical appointment were super-stringent, he didn’t hesitate to see me and replace the crown for a very reasonable £400.

Strictly speaking, my dentist didn’t even have to take on the work; I wasn’t in pain and crown replacement was essentially cosmetic, but I’m very grateful that he fixed me up.

Waiting lists at some dental surgeries are said to be in excess of three years.

Now I hear that some patients have been asked to pay £400 for one tooth removing, privately, because they couldn’t get an appointment with an NHS dentist.

Clearly thousands of people every week are suffering in agony because of this massive shortfall in provision, and ending up in financial difficulties to pay for private care.

Healthwatch England’s review, covering the experiences of 1,375 people, highlights worrying issues around affordability and access. This include people “removed” from practice lists for failing to make regular appointments; repeated cancelled appointments; dentists saying that they have “thousands” of people on their waiting list and some patients being asked to wait up to three years for appointments.

How can this be right in a civilised country? I wish I could report that the decline and fall of NHS dentistry was an isolated case in a health service supposed to be the envy of the world. However, this review from Healthwatch England adds to the serious issues afflicting GP care.

The average waiting time for a GP appointment in England is now at least two weeks. Like many generally healthy people, I gave up attempting to get an appointment years ago and generally self-diagnose and self-medicate. I pray that I never fall seriously ill. We’re looking at the clock turning back rapidly to the time before the NHS was founded. Mr Hancock’s Labour opposite number, Jonathan Ashworth, should be holding him to account at every opportunity.

The British Medical Association says that GP practices have been at the forefront of the NHS’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has piled on even more pressure.

We should at least spare a thought for the over-worked surgery staff, trying to work from home. However, if some of the things I’ve heard are true, many surgeries have hardly been falling over themselves to help patients since March last year.

Indeed, many have closed their doors and made it extremely difficult to access appointments or regular health check-ups and blood tests.

Online consultations and digital repeat prescriptions have helped ease the load, but offer precious little support for older and vulnerable people who struggle with mobile phones and computers.

Underpinning all of this is a severe shortage of doctors in general practice. The BMA says that the number of patients per practice is 22 per cent higher than it was in 2015, but the number of GPs has not grown with demand. There are now just 0.46 fully qualified GPs per 1,000 patients in England – down from 0.52 in 2015. GPs are choosing to retire early or work part-time to deal with the stress and burn-out caused by being so over-stretched.

And still Mr Hancock looks smug. When we were asked to stay indoors and abide by the rules to ‘protect the NHS’, which parts of the NHS was he talking about? Clearly not the ones that people need access to – like GP and dental practices.

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