Critics have blamed the growing trend on rocketing fees for NHS dentistry and continued difficulty accessing appointments, particularly in England – even before the first coronavirus wave brought dental treatment to a standstill.
The British Dental Association (BDA), which represents dentists, has called on the Government to “stop treating our patients like a cash cow”.
Health chiefs have urged people with urgent tooth problems to seek treatment at emergency dental services instead of A&Es.
More than 77,000 people turned up at the UK’s A&E departments and minor injury services in 2019/20 with dental problems, costing the NHS an estimated £13m, the figures obtained by JPIMedia Investigations show.
For South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, the figure was 358 people at an estimated cost of £60,000.
Nationally, common complaints included toothache, cavities and gum disease.
The BDA said in almost all cases, patients were unlikely to get anything more than pain relief and would be referred to a dentist, meaning this route offered people little help while lumbering the NHS with extra costs.
Dave Cottam, chairman of its General Dental Practice committee, said: “It’s no surprise patients were turning up at A&E departments in droves.
“Millions have struggled to secure an NHS dental appointment, and those that do find themselves clobbered with inflation-busting hikes in charges.
"Covid has simply upped the ante. When ministers treat dentistry as a Cinderella service the impact is felt across the NHS. Sadly, a decade of cuts is pushing patients to overstretched A&E medics and GPs who are neither trained nor equipped to treat them.
“We will see no progress until the Government stops treating our patients like a cash cow and provides adequate funding.”
Dentistry is a devolved matter. In England, dental treatment fees have seen nearly a decade of inflation-busting hikes.
A fee rise planned for April was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Department of Health and Social Care says ministers are now considering whether and when to lift this freeze.
Meanwhile, the amount invested into dentistry each year by the Government has fallen by a fifth – nearly £500m – in real terms since 2010.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Dental charges help towards the running costs of the NHS, but we carefully consider them every year and continue to offer people on low-incomes free treatment through exemptions and the NHS low-income scheme.”
They added that all dentists have been able to remain open during the second national lockdown, and those practices holding NHS contracts have continued to be paid in full throughout the pandemic.
In England, almost 64,000 people suffering dental problems turned to A&E departments and minor injury units in 2019/20, figures released by hospital trusts under the Freedom of Information Act show.
A spokesperson for NHS England disputed the claim that people were struggling to get dental appointments, saying: “Nearly 25,000 dentists are offering NHS care – the highest number on record – and during the first wave of the pandemic, over 600 urgent dental centres were set up so patients could access the care they needed.
“Dental practices are open and are understandably prioritising urgent care alongside recalling patients to complete routine care.”