Half a million patients could lose their dentist as Bupa shuts practices

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Woman at dentist
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Almost half a million patients could face losing their dentist under Bupa plans to get rid of a fifth of its dental practices.

The company - one of the largest providers of dentists in the UK, with 450 practices across Britain - is to “consolidate” its market, saying it cannot recruit enough dentists.

Under the plans, Bupa Dental Care will close, merge or sell 85 practices across the UK.

The move comes as NHS patients across the country face the largest hike in dental costs for 17 years, while public satisfaction has reached a new low.

Bupa is one of the biggest providers of dentistry in the UK, providing NHS dentists as well as those carrying out private work.

The company said it had taken the “difficult decision” because of a shortage of dentists willing to deliver NHS care, while practices were struggling to cope with extra running costs caused by inflation and rising energy bills.

Dental contract handed back to NHS

Bupa’s practices include those run by Total Orthodontics, Smiles and Platinum Dentistry, as well as those run by Bupa Dental Care, formerly known as Oasis Dental Care.

The company said 74 of the affected practices are in England, with the Midlands most affected, with closures also due in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Bupa said that where practices are earmarked for closure, the dental contract will be handed back to the NHS, meaning it will be up to local commissioners to find replacement services.

The company said affected dental practices would be sold, closed or merged later this year, with timing dependent on the local plans made, and around 400,000 patients affected.

Difficulty recruiting dentists

Mark Allan, general manager for Bupa Dental, said: “This has been a very difficult decision. The fundamental driver behind the announcement today is our difficulty recruiting dentists into those affected practices, particularly to do NHS treatment. We are not alone in that: that is an industry wide issue.”

He said the company already has 150 vacancies for dentists to deliver NHS care including 70 in the practices now earmarked for closure, sale or merger.

More than half of vacancies have been open for more than six months, despite attempts to boost recruitment by bringing in dentists from abroad, and bringing forward pay rises.

“This follows us exhausting all avenues,” Mr Allan said, pointing out that the company had repeatedly lobbied ministers to improve the NHS contract for dentists.

Bupa said it would provide patients with resources to help them find an alternative local provider, with attempts to transfer patients along with practices where a new owner can be found.

Even after the changes, Bupa would be responsible for the care of 1.3 million NHS patients, the senior figure said.

Rise in dental charges

It follows warnings that NHS patients are about to see the biggest hike in dental charges for 17 years, in rises described as “utterly grotesque” by the British Dental Association (BDA).

The rise of 8.5 per cent from April 24 is the largest single jump since the current system of charges was introduced in 2006.

This means the cost of a filling will rise more than £5 from the current £65.20 to £70.70. The price of a basic check-up will rise from £23.80 to £25.80, while more complex “band 3” treatments such as crowns or dentures will increase by £24 to £306.80.

It comes as the British Social Attitudes survey found satisfaction with NHS dentistry has reached a record low of 27 per cent - down from 60 per cent in 2020.

This month a national survey of dentists in England found half had reduced their NHS commitment since the start of the pandemic, while three quarters intend to reduce levels further.

Analysis of government data by the BDA found around 11 million people - around one in four of the adult population - are struggling to access a dentist.

Almost six million tried and failed to get an appointment in the past two years, and 3.6 million did not try because they thought they could not secure an appointment.

Last year BBC research involving more than 8,000 dental practices with an NHS contract found one in 10 refusing to take new patients.

The BDA blames shortages of dentists on the NHS contract, which it says provides insufficient funding.

In July, the NHS announced the first dentistry reforms since 2006, saying the changes would “support practices to improve access, including giving high-performing practices the opportunity to increase their activity and treat more patients”.

But the BDA said the changes were “modest and marginal” and would do little to prevent an exodus of dentists from the NHS.

Last year the organisation said that around 3,000 high street dentists had walked away from NHS work entirely since the start of the pandemic.

Bupa, which has around 9,000 staff, said it would “fully support” its people through this change, redeploying affected colleagues to continue their careers with the company where possible.