/ Health

Struggling to find an NHS dentist?

How easy is it to find out which NHS dentist in your area can give you an appointment? We’ve found that getting accurate information can be a real struggle.

When I needed to see a dentist urgently, following an accident, a couple of years ago, I looked first on NHS Choices, the Government’s official NHS website, and got an appointment with a local dentist within a couple of days.

Turns out I was very lucky.

NHS Choices is the second most popular way that you try to find your dental options, we’ve found. But when in March we called 500 practices advertising NHS appointments on the site, a third told us they couldn’t offer us any NHS treatment whatsoever.

Frustratingly difficult to find an NHS dentist appointment

We gave them another chance in May. Maybe a new NHS financial year would make it easier to get an appointment. But the problem was actually slightly worse – 37% of the 500 practices couldn’t give us an appointment. In many parts of England, you’d have to call at least three dentists before getting an NHS appointment.

Not what you want when toothache kicks in.

We also found problems with people being asked to pay non-refundable deposits before booking, long waiting lists of up to two years, and out-of-date practice websites. A number of people were also offered private care as a speedier (but more expensive) alternative.

Time to clean up their act

None of the problems we uncovered are new. The Office of Fair Trading investigated the dental sector in 2012 and made recommendations for it to clean up its act.

And our own investigation earlier this year discovered that many dentists are failing to explain treatment options and prices.

We think too little has been done in these areas, and in access to information. We’d like the Competition and Markets Authority to look into progress to date.

Have you used NHS Choices? Did it help you find a dentist with availability, or were you turned down?

Neil says:
17 June 2015

We have never found it difficult finding and registering with an NHS dentist in this area. We have changed several times for various reasons. What we have found difficult though is the differences between them. One said ‘no need to do any work at the moment’, another said ‘you have several fillings that need attention’; one said ‘this can’t be done under the NHS’, the other said it could.

17 June 2015

In Norfolk 1 of the problems with NHS dentists is wheelchair accessibility. Not many, through no fault of their own are fully accessible. There is also a shortage of NHS dentists that have spaces for new patients. Due to some of my disabilities i find treatment extremely painful & bleed a lot, it also takes months for gums to heal therefore a problem with eating. I found out about painless laser treatment, safer too, but the NHS won’t fund even for medical conditions. Since being disabled most of my fillings have fallen out but i have had to leave them as the drill would affect my head so badly. I had always looked after my teeth previously but cannot afford to do so now. I do agree it can make you very self conscious as a smile is usually a person’s first lasting impression of a person. Insurance is out of the question as all treatment has to be up to date first. Catch 22! I suffer badly at times with toothache as I also suffer with neuralgia for which i cannot have any treatment due to allergies & other illnesses. Disability is often easier to cope with than the other problems that come with it. Unfortunately the NHS rules are not even flexible let alone breakable. Short of borrowing for dentistry, which I can’t really afford, there is nothing I can do, though I am going to fight for dental treatment I need.

Chris says:
17 June 2015

When we moved to this area we were fortunate to find a dentist that accepted NHS patients. But unfortunately for pensioners they usually do two appointments and ask you to pay £58.00 and send you away for three months . When you return there is another set of charges as this is considered a new treatment – even if my presenting problem at the first appointment has a few problems.

This way they just keep taking money from you all the time. I think the system is unfair.

sally says:
18 June 2015

Very disatisfied. was sent to distant branch under protest. machine broke whilst having clean, I was squirted with water and paste. Dentist flustered then just carried on… i had water running inside my clothes. don`t feel she completed job, I was quickly dismissed, no aplogy, as if nothing had happened… And no help to clean up! second stage of treatment which should have been same was not properly scheduled so another dentist just gave me water jet clean an spent inordinate time checking what she would be paid for. I have been back and at least saw second dentist again but felt very quick and missed some teeth… I have no confidence at all in the care I had. This was NHS and years ago I remembered same practice as having a young man who clearly had had no proper training but NHS is hard to find… everyone seems to come from overseas so not sure how well checked their professional standing/experience might be. I have been for private care but felt pressured to do more and it seemed once I was deemed not to be a cash cow they lost interest…

Eva Simmons says:
18 June 2015

After my lovely NHS dentist of many years retired, I searched for another and managed to get onto the books of an NHS dentis not far awayt. I needed a wisdom tooth extracted. Within a day or two the socket became infected, and I was in agony. Phoned for help, only to find my dentist had gone on a three week holiday!

It was Christmas time, with all dental practices closed, and I became desperate. Finally, I managed to get one of the partners from “my” practice to come in and treat me as an emergency. I never went back.

Third time lucky? I got into the books of another dentist on what I understood to be an NHS basis. The first time I went, I was charged extra for this and extra for that (privately-priced supplements to the basic “NHS” charge, until the prices were comparable to those of a private dentist anyway). I was then referred to a local private dentist for further treatment. On two occasions subsequently, I was again told the NHS dentist coildn’t do what I wanted (quite routine things like cleaning!), and I should go to the private dentist, so I did.

The private dentist is very well known in our locality, and charges a fortune. But they are excellent, with an excellent reputation, so I have, reluctantly stuck with them, and simply brace myself for a whopping bill every time I go – which, in view of the cost, is rarely!

Frederick Parkinson says:
18 June 2015

Several years ago my NHS dentist went wholly private. I tried to find a local NHS, but my enquiries indicated the nearest was 15 miles away. I therefore, reluctantly, accepted the private policy they ran. Due to changes in my private policy I have tried to find a local NHS dentist. The 3 nearest to me, on my side of the city (Bath) are not accepting new NHS patients.

Warren Glynn says:
18 June 2015

Dental surgeries are an absolute rip off – my NHS dentist suddenly went private and when we needed an appointment urgently were slapped with a huge bill with little choice to go elsewhere.

Later looking elsewhere was a nightmare, we found dentists won’t give out prices or if they do they are not reflective of the actual charged. A favourite is that you must come in and pay a fee before been given a quote or price list. Absolute rubbish.

Equally, the prices I have been given have ranged from £1700 to £150 without any exaggeration.

claudia says:
19 June 2015

In my surgery ( Porth, RCT) I can easily book for an appointment with my NHS dentist. But I have a real issue with the quality of their work. If it was up to them I would be waring a denture by now and I am only in my 50s. I have tried a number of dentists within that surgery and they all seem to opt for the minimum amount of work; so, extractions are preferred to any treatment that has any level of complexity (ie. crowns). My dentist even told me that I don’t really need all my teeth!
At that moment I just wished that our roles had been reversed!

I used to go to an excellent NHS dentist, but when the Labour Government changed the terms of their contract a few years ago, they decided to change to private practice only and the main dentist subsequently moved away, selling the business. I live in a fairly small town in a non very affluent part of Yorkshire, but all 4 dentists that I am aware of are private practices.
I have checked the NHS website a few times over the years, but there are virtually no practices within 30-40 minutes drive that may perhaps accept NHS patients, so I have not tried to move.
Although I consider charges to be fairly high, I am aware that a couple of the other local practices charge even more so, as a pensioner, I very reluctantly pay for necessary treatment only.
Those who still have NHS dentists are lucky (although standards are obviously variable, but that applies to private dentists as well).

Had a brilliant dentist then 20 yrs ago, then I went working overseas and had private dentists under a health scheme via my employment. Never had any complaints whilst overseas and had five dentists in that time. Then when I returned to live in the UK…. last summer. First problem was finding a NHS Dentist. My old dentist had long retired but the practice was still there. Had to wait 9 months to re-register (never knew I had been de-registered). Had first check up which was very poor in my view. No cleaning done (not necessary said the dentist) so what have I been having my teeth cleaned for the last 37 yrs. for ???? He then said they don’t get paid under the NHS to clean teeth. Then I read my notes on the way back to Reception and they were the wrong notes of someone else with the same name. I doubt he had the same date of birth which is a fundamental way to check. Have moved home now and cannot find a NHS Dentist anywhere within 30 minutes travelling.

21 June 2015

I went NHS after my private dental practice changed hands and it all became very expensive.
I found my dentist changed frequently, so I never built up a patient/dentist relationship, then I was recommended to get £500 of specialist private treatment from a London-based dentist who visited my area at weekends. After that, he wanted me to have another £500’s worth of work. I changed to a private dentist I know as a friend and he could not see any such work being necessary. That was 4 years ago, since when I have been very happy with an excellent service and fair prices. Moral is: don’t assume the NHS is better value.

I had a similar experience of moving from one dentist who on every visit seemed to find something that needed doing (and paying for) to the one I’m with now. She explains what she has found, identifies any potential problems but usually suggests just ‘keeping an eye on it’. The result is that I’m paying less, but she has kept a patient for much longer.

Jerry says:
21 June 2015

We don’t have any of our vital organs checked up every 6 months, yet the Dental profession plays on peoples fears and has (over decades) built up a level of expectation and acceptance that Dentistry is so highly specialised that it must charge high rates – its always struck me as odd. We all know people who have stories where their reliable dentist turns private and costs go through the roof – its almost a cartel.
My particular issue with NHS charges is the reluctance to actually do the work within the price bands declared. I find that my NHS Dentist will not clean or take xrays because he cant push them through as separate charges (ie he gets nothing more in reimbursement), as soon as I drop hints like ‘am I due one of these’ he’s quick to do, but under a private arrangement or referral to others within the practice – because I asked, rather than he recommends). In fact if there’s a hygienist close, the Dentist wont consider doing his own cleaning, but will refer so that someone can still charge £50+. 2 years ago I turned up for my usual checkup to find i had been allocated to someone else – I thought this was just temporary, yet the same occurred on the next check up. I inquired and found out that he had decided to leave the country and train for some other highly skilled element of Dentistry (course takes years). No attempt to communicate this to patients was made, yet the practice didn’t seem at all concerned. In summary and in brief then, my concerns about the NHS are improved communication and proper adherence to charge bands and doing whats required, not taking every opportunity to farm out so that private tariffs kick in.

Gum disease used to be one of the main problems suffered by humans. I have read tales of people having all their teeth removed to avoid cost and prevent pain, but hopefully we have moved on, especially now that the importance of dental hygiene is heavily promoted.

In my experience, dentists make far less use of X-rays these days. There is little risk associated with dental X-rays compared with other X-rays but no X-ray is completely safe.

I have never understood why NHS dentistry is distinct from other NHS care and many will be having to pay more to look after their teeth than the rest of their body.

Carol says:
22 June 2015

When my NHS dentist retired it was impossible to find another one in my area. I was without a dentist for around 4 years and had to go to ’emergency dentists’ that were arranged by phoning a central number, and they then called back with a time and place. One of the dentists I was sent to had no running water so was using bottled water, and the electricity kept cutting out during the drilling process. It felt like I was in a third world country and was a traumatic experience. It turned out that there was building work being done in another office which was causing the problems, but surely they should have been closed if it was impacting on their treatments? Needless to say,even though I needed further work, I refused to go back there. Eventually several dentists opened one after the other in my home town, and I got signed up as an NHS patient again. I was happy to begin with but then it was discovered that I had a medical problem, which took them 2 and a half years to diagnose, resulting in me losing many of my teeth before it was diagnosed, despite it being a very common side effect of the medication they knew I was taking. I would add that my GP failed to diagnose the problem completely, so not much confidence in either profession these days!

I feel that everyone should be entitled to be able to see an NHS dentist without problems of having to travel a long way or difficulty in getting an appointment. NHS charges are high enough without having to pay more for private treatment.

Many dental practices offer both NHS and private treatment. My present one does, according to the leaflets, but to their credit they have not pushed me to switch to private treatment in the six years I have been going there.

I wonder if private practices could be pushed to offer NHS treatment if there is a local need.

Bettybloo says:
24 June 2015

Very lucky to get registered with nhs dentist. For years there was only private clinics in my area.they are excellent.
However, having lost all of my upper teeth I wanted to explore the possibility of implants and was astonished to learn that it would cost £10,000!
I am wondering why it costs so much. I am guessing it’s because they can and there is no competition.
I realise that this is in no way comparable to not being able to find a local NHS clinic though I do think there is a bit of a rip off going on. Have Which carried out an investigation into this and also treatment abroad?

Hayley says:
2 July 2015

Local dentist did accept a new patient – however all I got was a quick examination and two x-rays, and told to see the hygienist (£50) who would give me a scale and polish and ‘get under the gum where you can’t’ to clear a bit of gum disease.

My mention of a tooth sensitive to temperature and one sensitive to pressure went without being addressed.

I asked about the little stains between my front teeth – ‘the hygienist will do that’ was the reply.

In the past my NHS appts always included scale/polish, and this practice has a sign in reception detailing what an NHS checkup includes – a scale & polish!!!

It really felt like a cursory look, and that I was just being pushed to the hygienist – which there is a 4 week wait for – so they are pushing a lot of people that way – charging the patient and charging the NHS too!

Ryan Gee says:
2 July 2015

My last dentist did wonders, sadly he died. My present dentist seemed good. Did little work for many years. 4 years ago I got a very bad infection in a capped tooth. To cut a long saga short, it took 4 years and £900 to clear the infection. My point is cost and time, along with many others. When I questioned the cost I was told it had to be done privately because the NHS would not do the work to save the tooth, they would just pull the tooth out. So this in mind, I tried to register with a dentist closer to where I live, not 20 miles away where I am now. I completed the registration form with the new dentist 12 months ago, still waiting. In my opinion we have a serious problem with all aspects of the dental profession, which should be investigated by the government. It is all too easy to go private and charge eye watering prices. After all they have been trained by the NHS.

Paul Child says:
28 July 2015

My dental practice is going private. So it is now going to cost me £7.25 a month (£87 pa) for an annual checkup that previously cost me about £20. It seems that the NHS is unable to provide me with a dental service as no other dentists in my town accept NHS customers.
Where else would one be blackmailed into paying over a fourfold increase for the same service?

I had toothache at the weekend and saw a dentist at my normal practice on Monday, my own dentist being off that day. I wondered why I was charged only £18.80 because I was in the chair for about 30 minutes, but having had a look at the NHS charges, this is classified as urgent treatment that can be completed in a single session.

I asked the young dentist, who is new to the practice, why they were able to take new NHS patients (there was a large A-board outside) and he said that previously there was a shortage of NHS dentists in the area. Maybe the answer is for people denied NHS dentistry to push for services in their area.

Which? has carried out a routine examination and discovered a problem that requires urgent treatment. Hopefully Which? can be relied on to push for filling in the gaps in NHS treatment.

Which? is good at grinding with its molars but I sometimes feel the incisors need sharpening. [No charge for this second opinion.]

Thank you John.

Come on Which? – Get your teeth into the problem. We need a follow-up appointment soon and not wait six months for a check-up. We have been patient.

Helen Williams says:
29 July 2015

I have relocated to North Pembrokeshire and tried to find a NHS dentist. The nearest one is over 40 miles away, at least an hours drive or over 3 hours on public transport. I was told that the I could register on a waiting list that could take 12 to 18 months. The private dentists in this area can charge what they like as there is no incentive to keep costs down. There is no free provision available for over 60’s or children unless you are an emergency case.