Dental screenings backlogged by almost 10 years in parts of Ireland

By Eoin Ryan

There is a backlog of almost 10 years in accessing dental screenings through the HSE school in some parts of the country, according to the Irish Dental Association (IDA).

The Irish Dental Association said understaffing and a lack of resources for public dentists is being blamed for the long delays. The number of public only dentists have dropped from 330 in 2006 to 254 in 2022, a 23% drop in fifteen years with 76 dentists needed to fill the gap.

Some children are not receiving an initial check-up until they are 16 years of age and are therefore missing out on vital early intervention, resulting in more drastic treatment or, in the worst cases, extractions being required during the formative teenage and early adult years.

“Too many children are slipping through the cracks, despite all the evidence showing that the younger a child is when they are first examined, the less likely the need for major treatment or extractions later,” Chief Executive of the Irish Dental Association Fintan Hourihan said. “Dentists, however, are reporting seeing older children who are requiring 3 or 4 extractions and root canal treatment

The lack of public sector dentists is also forcing patients waiting on essential dental treatment and those with special care needs on longer waiting lists.

This is forcing dentists to pick and choose who they believe needs the treatment more ahead of other patients who may have been waiting months or years already. There are high stress levels and burnout among HSE dentists due to these strains, according to the IDA, leading many to go private instead.

HSE numbers on dentists holding Dental Treatment Services Scheme (DTSS) contracts is at 1,082, but figures from the start of 2022 showed just 660 dentists were actively treating medical card patients. This is a steep drop from the 1,660 dentists holding DTSS contracts in 2017.

“People on medical cards are not getting the dental care they should because of this dispute,” Councillor Michael Gallagher said. 

“There’s a long waiting list so it means you could be waiting nine months to see your dentist because there’s only a small group of dentists that are prepared to work the medical card system.”

A resident in the Navan area using the medical card scheme with her daughters has been unable to find anyone in Meath and surrounding counties accepting payment through the scheme. 

Currently, she can not afford to make consultations after her dentist stopped accepting medical card payments at the start of the year. She has not found a dentist  for her and her two daughters despite searching in Dublin, Drogheda, Cavan, and Dundalk. 

“There was one dentist in Cavan using the scheme but when I rang Cavan, they told me that they had taken a number of people from County Meath and they couldn’t take anymore because they were full,” she said.

The lack of support has led to a deterioration of her dental health and her two daughters have not received a check-up so far this year.

“So then about three months ago I was having problems with one of my teeth and I had to go to the dentist and, because I left it so long, I needed to get an extraction and I had to pay for that privately.”

Michael Gallagher has been told by the IDA they are willing to negotiate with the health minister regarding the medical card system but he has refused to make contact with them.

“People on medical cards are not getting the dental care they should because of this dispute,” Councillor Michael Gallagher said. 

“There is a long waiting list so it means you could be waiting nine months to see your dentist because there’s only a small group of dentists that are prepared to work the medical card system.”

Hourihan said dentists are leaving the scheme due to how little of fees are paid by the state and frustration regarding how the scheme functions.

He said that “Patients are the ones who will suffer most in an underfunded oral health system,” if no reforms are made.

“We are urgently calling on the Minister for Health to engage with the Irish Dental Association in an effort to develop a model of care that brings about the reform that we so desperately seek and, most critically, ensures access to essential care for patients.”

The IDA said they have been promised talks discussing a new scheme by the Minister for Health, but none have taken place. They noted that there was no account of proposals made by them to alleviate the rising cost of dental treatments for dentists who receive no state support.

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