NHS dentists; or, how I learned to start worrying and hate my teeth

I’ve just come back from having the second of two fillings put in at my new dentist. Why did I need two fillings, you ask? Well, this dentist is the first dentist I’d visited in over ten years.

Why did I stay away for so long? I’m not really the squeamish type: I don’t have a problem with jabs, blood tests and so forth… I went ahead with a circumcision given an on-the-spot choice about having it that day, for heaven’s sake. No, I stayed away because the NHS dental system itself set the ball rolling on the cumulative fear process.

The cumulative fear process, as I call it, is that process that occurs when you put something off because you’re scared of it, but the longer you put it off, the scarier it becomes, which of course makes it harder to go through with.

I wasn’t scared in the beginning, though. I was merely baffled and intimidated by the system. That was enough to keep me away long enough to start rolling up the katamari of fear.

The thing is: NHS dentistry costs money, and it is only accessible to a lucky few.

More or less everything else on the NHS costs the patient nothing. This even includes scientifically unproven so-called complementary therapies like acupuncture and homeopathy. Not so dentistry: working adults over the age of 18 and students over the age of 19 are asked to make a contribution of normally £47 (but possibly £204) for any treatment, and £17 for a checkup or hygiene appointment.

As a student at the age of 19 that’s not a fun prospect. We’re not only mostly not earning at that age, we’re also living off borrowed money, and very little of that. £47 back then would have been a week’s rent and still is for many students.

But that’s only a small part of the problem most people face when they become students. Many of us chose to obey the so-called “hundred-mile rule”1 which meant we were too far from our family dentists to return to them every time we needed a checkup or, worse, a course of treatment.

So that leaves us to find a new NHS dentist. But where are they? The NHS choices web site will tell us there are hundreds of dentists registered with the NHS, but are they accepting new NHS patients? Are they bollocks.

Finding an NHS dentist that’s accepting patients in a city centre is a bit like winning a few hundred quid on the lottery. You’ve met people who’ve done it, but you know it’ll never happen to you. I had a look in Leeds and the closest one I could find was a good 30 minutes’ walk from my city centre flat and oh my was it scary… The reception staff were sat inside their little box behind a code-locked door, the surgery itself was nowhere to be seen and the shockingly sparse waiting room was plastered in “patients who sneeze will be shot”-type signs. I ran.

It took a serious bout of gingivitis to get me to book in to see a dentist. I signed on with my work’s optional dental insurance and got myself registered with an awesome private dentist that only charges about double the NHS prices for simple treatment.2 I’m lucky my employer gives me dental insurance, but few if any other people I know are so fortunate.

So what can we do to give people more opportunity to register with NHS dentists, and to give those who are not earning a chance to continue receiving a vital healthcare service for nothing? I don’t know, but I’m certain that the current government with its supposed “We love the NHS” reforms is not going to help us get there.

  1. A university roughly a hundred miles away is close enough to bother your parents for food parcels but not close enough for them to drop in unexpectedly. []
  2. City Dental, if you’re interested. []


  1. Geraint North
    May 10, 2011

    I’m in the same position – haven’t been to the dentist for probably 12 years now, but really need to get something sorted out. However, I’m willing to drive a long way if I have to, so I can look further afield. You’ve motivated me to go hunting again, though. 🙂

    • Rich
      May 10, 2011

      Something I didn’t mention for lack of space was that private dental treatment is not as expensive as I’d expected. If I was not insured, this whole treatment (exam, x-rays, 2x scale and polish, 2x white fillings including one complex one) would cost less than £500, which is not bad for teeth that have been neglected for 10 years!

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