Dentistry in Norfolk in is the midst of a crisis that has been going on for several years. But now, a solution could be on the horizon as government ministers agree to look at proposals for the region.
People living in Norfolk and Waveney have one of the most limited access to dental care in England, with statistics revealing that there is just one NHS dentist for every 2,600 people living in the region. Now a big step towards solving the county’s ‘dental desert’ has been revealed – a new dentistry school at the University of East Anglia.
The plans are in very early stages but have the support of the region’s MPs, who held a meeting earlier this week with NHS chiefs, the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the government minister overseeing dentistry, Maria Caulfield.
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North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker said: “It’s probably the most important meeting we have had in the last few years about addressing the dentist shortage in Norfolk. We went over the issues with the health minister, the problem is not just NHS dentistry its completely across the board in East Anglia, there is no provision, no training school in East England. If we don’t have people training here in the east what hope do we have to pull people across?”
The North Norfolk MP, who has a personal connection to dentistry thanks to his father being an NHS dentist for 34 years, said that people who study at the UEA tend to stay locally.
“We feel that this is a shovel-ready proposal, the UEA has got the infrastructure and the space – now we need the government to give the green light,” Mr Baker added. We implored the dentistry minister to take this seriously and she was very understanding.
“This gives us hope that the government are listening and there is a serious case that we can deliver this over the next few years and it can go some way to addressing the issue of getting qualified dentists into Norfolk. This is the opportunity, the golden opportunity, to solve the crisis.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from constituents desperate for dentists. I can’t see that there would be any area more deserving than East Anglia.”
Broadland MP Jerome Mayhew said: “Right across Norfolk people are struggling to get access to dentists, whether NHS or private. While the situation has been made worse by the Covid backlog, this has been a problem for years.
“I persuaded the NHS to create a new NHS dental contract for Fakenham, only for no dentists to apply for it. Private dental practices are struggling to get recruits too. Part of the problem is that you can’t train to be a dentist anywhere in the East of England.”
Mr Mayhew said Ms Caulfield agreed to meet with Health Education England, which coordinates the education and training of dentists, to push for more training in Norfolk. UEA representatives also agreed to provide a pilot document to the minister setting out how the university could act as a training hub.
Mr Mayhew added: “With the closest dental colleges being in either London or Birmingham, this is an exciting opportunity to finally get Norfolk the dental care it deserves.”
This is not the first time a training school for Norfolk has been proposed. The government previously rejected a plan for a dentistry school at the UEA in 2006. Instead, it chose to back proposals to build a shared dentistry school between the universities of Exeter and Plymouth.
Responding to the plans Alex Stewart, chief executive of Healthwatch Norfolk, said he was pleased to hear that early discussions were under way: “While this would not solve the immediate issues, there is no doubt attracting and retaining staff in the county is a problem.” for the county’s network of NHS dentists and anything that would help ease this problem has to be welcomed.”
Mr Stewart said it was the number one concern for people contacting them and offered to support the development of the pilot case.
A Department for Health and Social Care spokeswoman said it was working to tackle dentistry backlogs, including through establishing ‘centers for dental development’ – which provide training for students in later stages of their studies and may be able to help local need. The UEA was contacted for comment.
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