Dentistry in Decay: One in 10 dentists feel suicidal, study finds, leading to claims of a healthcare 'crisis'

Britain’s dental industry is in “crisis” with plummeting morale and soaring pressures pushing more dentists to the brink of suicide even before the coronavirus pandemic brought widespread disruption to the industry, it can today be revealed.

Monday, 23rd November 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Monday, 23rd November 2020, 8:28 am

“Broken” dentists are being overwhelmed by stress and struggling to hit crippling patient targets, campaign groups have warned.

A shock study by the British Dental Association (BDA) has found almost one in 10 dentists considered taking their lives in a single year

And the organisation fears the coronavirus crisis will only have increased the mental health burden on dentists, with practices facing financial concerns and a large backlog of patients.

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Dentistry In Decay

The mental health crisis facing the industry is so severe it has seen dentists banding together to form a new helpline for anxious staff.

Experienced practitioners are also stepping in to counsel their suicidal colleagues during face-to-face sessions, JPIMedia Investigations has learned.

Meanwhile, a recruitment crisis is pushing an already stretched NHS service to breaking point, dental chiefs have warned.

In the survey of more than 2,000 dentists, carried out by the BDA, a shocking 17.6 per cent said they had contemplated suicide at least once in their life.

The investigation also highlighted a worrying trend of “burnout” within the industry, with more than two thirds of dentists showing “a high level of psychological distress”.

The BDA added government targets introduced across England and Wales in 2006, which remunerated dentists for the number of treatments given, had “devastated morale”.

Former BDA president Roz McMullan said the “broken system” was creating “broken people” and insisted authorities now had a “duty” to act.

“Out of sight and out of mind – UK dentists are facing a mental health crisis,’ she added.

“From the very start of their career colleagues face a culture of fear, of regulators, red tape and ambulance-chasing lawyers.

“Stress is practically built into NHS systems, where chasing government targets takes priority over patient care. Covid has simply turned up the volume.

“It’s ludicrous that those who go over and above for the NHS, end up paying the price with the lowest morale.”

Dr Jeremy Cooper set up the helpline Confidental following the suicide of a colleague, which has raked up more than 200 calls from anxious dentists since starting seven months ago.

He said: “I’m distraught when I hear a dentist has taken their own life.

“We need more to get more support, 1,000 per cent. More action is needed to tackle mental health.”

Is dentistry linked to rocketing cancer rates?

Health chiefs must urgently overhaul NHS dentistry to combat rocketing rates of mouth cancer in the UK, campaigners warned.

With the number of cases growing by 58 per cent in the last decade, early diagnosis at check-ups is seen as the key to life-saving treatment.

However, critics say many people were struggling to access NHS dentistry even before the coronavirus crisis forced surgeries to close and then reopen with severely reduced capacity, meaning too often the cancer is often being discovered at a late stage.

NHS Digital figures show hospital admissions for oral cancer increased by 30 per cent in England between 2010/11 and 2019/20, to 26,773.

Patients will be captured more than once if they have to be admitted for treatment multiple times.

Figures from the Oral Health Foundation meanwhile show there were 8,722 diagnoses of mouth cancer in the UK in 2019 – an increase of 58 per cent compared to 10 years ago and up 97 over the last 20 years.

Tragically, 2,701 people died from the illness in 2018. The British Dental Association (BDA) warns many people may now be “walking around with oral cancer that hasn’t been picked up” thanks to the pandemic.

The number of missed NHS dental appointments had reached 15 million in the year to the end of August when compared to the same period in 2019, according to the organisation.

Chairman of the BDA, Eddie Crouch, said: “Dentists are on the frontline for picking up on the telltale signs of oral cancer. The condition claims more lives each year than car accidents, and early detection really is key.”

But he said that “millions of patients are now struggling to get an appointment”, adding: “For years check-ups have been effectively rationed which made the early detection of these life changing cancers an unacceptable lottery.”

Even before the pandemic, an estimated 4m people in England were not accessing NHS dentistry because they could not find a practice, could not afford the charges, were on a waiting list or had not even tried to find a dentist because they assumed they would fail, the BDA said.

Now with practices operating at a fraction of their former capacity, numbers have surged.

Dr Phillip Lewis, of the Mouth Cancer Foundation, said patients should see a dentist at least once a year, but in practice millions of people do not meet even this most basic recommendation.

He said: “The chances of treating mouth cancer are the greatest when it is found early - but it is often discovered late because patients have not been coming in for regular examinations.

“When mouth cancer is discovered in its earliest stages the chances of complete cure over five years are really good - about 95 per cent.

“But as soon as there is a time delay and the cancer spreads, the survival rates absolutely plummet and the treatments are really unpleasant.”

Dr Lewis said an “underfunded” system, an inadequate target-driven contract and problems with recruitment were all factors in limiting access to NHS dentistry.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care, which is responsible for dentistry in England, said: “Every cancer patient deserves the best possible care and we are committed to detecting more cancers at an earlier stage to save an estimated 55,000 lives a year by 2028.

“As part of this, every dentist is expected to fully assess their patient’s oral health to look for the signs of cancer.”