UK dental system pushes more patients abroad

STORY: This is 55-year-old Marion Parks.

She lives in a small English village and is having intensive dental work done.

But not in her local dental surgery. She’s thousands of miles from home in Istanbul.

Marion says she isn’t alone.

“…people are going to Turkey not just for dental treatment, they're going for other and it's not just cosmetic things. People are going for hip replacements, you know, because there are such long waiting lists on the NHS. It's something that people are considering so that they're not in pain."

Every year thousands of Brits go abroad for dental treatment like this.

The issue? The UK has a shortage of dentists.

The country also ranked third from the bottom among the OECD’s 22 mostly rich nations in terms of access in 2021.

Problems with the central government funding system have compounded the problem, meaning millions cannot access a low-priced dentist in the UK's state-run National Health Service.

With the cost of private dentistry too high for many, a rocketing cost of living crisis and an NHS consumed by strikes, the sense of malaise is growing.

One recent parliamentary report even noted people were resorting to pulling out their own problem teeth.

Eddie Crouch, Chair of the British Dental Association or BDA, says it's far from a new issue - and that the UK system no longer works due to a dental contract the government introduced in 2006.

"The (NHS) dental contract is not fit for purpose and actually, if you look at the health select committee report, that's virtually the words they use. And actually a health select committee report 15 years ago said almost exactly the same thing. ///But sadly with the rise of inflation and various costs of delivering the service, the NHS fees now for the treatment do not cover the costs of actually delivering the care. So many of my colleagues are actually delivering care at a loss."

The BDA says the NHS payment structure does not distinguish between the complexity of treatments.

As a result, many dental practices operate at a loss, and supplement NHS income with private work.

But many do not accept new NHS customers. And some simply leave the service.

Here's Marion again.

“I just feel sorry for the people who are in pain in the UK because the NHS is completely stretched. Dentists are not available and to get any treatment done quickly, you've got to have it done privately. So, you know, I'm lucky that I can come here and get this work done and not have to worry about my future dental health."

While no official statistics on dental tourism exist, interviews with six companies suggests it is either at record highs or growing rapidly.

The dental clinic Marion visited has treated more than 500 Brits this year, up from 200 in 2022.

Medical Travel Market, a UK-based consultancy, received over 1,500 inquiries up to mid November this year, up more than 450% over 2022.

In response to this, the government says it will "shortly" set out measures to improve access to NHS dentistry.

A spokesperson said 1.7 million more adults and 800,000 more children were receiving NHS dental care compared with last year.

They also pointed out that new plans aim to increase dental training places by 40%.

But critics say hiring more dentists without reforming the dental contract will achieve nothing.