Dentistry: Access for Cancer Patients

Part of Antimicrobial Resistance – in Westminster Hall am 5:05 pm ar 17 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 5:05, 17 Ebrill 2024

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. Since being elected to represent Tiverton and Honiton almost two years ago, one of the issues that has appeared most regularly in my inbox and mailbag is access to NHS dentistry. It is common across the country for someone to have difficulty accessing new NHS dentists if they are not already registered, but that is particularly difficult in some parts of the country, including in Devon, which is often regarded by many as a so-called “dental desert”.

In recent months, we have heard the Government suggest that a way to address the difficult shortages of dentists is to try to attract qualified dentists into an area regarded as a dental desert. For example, we have seen the proposal to pay one-off incentives to qualified dentists to move into a dental desert such as Devon, but the truth is that this is still very difficult. I appreciate that the new proposal has not come in yet, but given that it is a one-off incentive, there is still no long-term incentive for dentists to move into dental deserts. That is difficult for many of my constituents, but it is more deeply worrying for those who are living with cancer. This is not a hypothetical scenario; it is the experience for people in rural communities such as Devon where finding a new dentist is impossible.

I will recount a real-life story from one of my constituents who was caught in just that scenario. Robin Whatling lives in Tiverton and is aged just 55. He is struggling with advanced cancer. Because of the treatment and medication that he is on, his bones and teeth are weaker than they would otherwise be, which means that regular check-ups are more important for him.

Robin’s wife, Sharon, contacted me last December and told me how, after booking a check-up, he received an abrupt phone call just a few days before it was due to happen. He was informed that the practice was no longer treating NHS patients and that if he wanted to go ahead with his appointment, he would need to go private. That is clearly a massive issue for a couple like Robin and Sharon. Due to Robin’s vulnerable state, Sharon has had to go part-time to become his carer. That means that she is not able to work the hours that she used to, which would have possibly afforded her more money to pay for private healthcare treatment.

Instead, the couple pursued the idea of finding an NHS dentist. They were held on the phone for three hours before being cut off. In the end it all became too much, and Rob ended up removing one of the teeth that was causing him pain by himself at home. I do not need to tell the House that that is a shocking, appalling situation to have to contend with while suffering advanced cancer.

Despite years of working hard and paying into the system, this couple are now left adrift with no support or access to dental care. In some of the correspondence that Members receive, we have constituents who rage at us with anger, but this couple approached me with great modesty and humility. They absolutely were not seeking to score any sort of political point. They just wanted to let me know, in a very factual way, the experience of a rural couple contending with cancer and trying to find NHS dentistry on the state.

The British Dental Association has laid bare the facts. Oral cancer is one of the fastest-growing types of cancer and it is killing more people than car accidents every day. Dentists can play a key role in diagnosis and referral, and if oral cancer is diagnosed early, survival rates can be as high as 90% compared with just 50% if diagnosis takes place at a later date.

Let us say it as it is: NHS dentistry is in crisis. It is another example of the Government continuing to let people down and stand by as our vital services crumble. The NHS dental budget has been cut in real terms by £1 billion while the Conservatives have been in power. That is a shocking legacy of neglect. My constituents were not party political about this, but I am going to be: this Government have presided over the crumbling and decay of NHS dentistry, and have paid lip service to proposals to do bits and pieces that do not amount to contract reform. So I urge the Minister, for the sake of Rob, Sharon and everyone who is trapped in a situation like this, to take on board the urgency of the issue of NHS dental care for cancer patients and those who might become cancer patients.