BLACKBURN with Darwen lost 7 per cent of its NHS registered dentists over the last year, according to new data compiled by the BBC.

Unions have warned NHS dentistry is "hanging by a thread", with some patients facing two-year waits for routine check ups.

The region had 111 NHS dentists in 2017, that figure is now 101 - with eight of those dentists leaving their post in 2021.

The situation nationally is a lot more bleak and could be a sign of things to come, as the data from across England and Wales shows more than 2,500 dental posts were lost across both countries – made up of more than 1,000 dentists, some of whom worked in multiple areas.

Across other NHS East Lancashire CCG regions including Accrington, Burnley, Hyndburn, Rossendale and the Ribble Valley, the situation looks to be better, losing only 1 per cent of their NHS dentists last year and just 2 per cent over five-years.

Michael Best, practice owner at Bateman and Best on Blackburn Road, Darwen, explained: "The NHS is a limited resource, that's the main reason for dentists leaving to set up private practices.

"We also hadn't had a pay-rise for NHS work in nearly 10 years. Don't get me wrong, we have had a pay-rise recently but it hasn't been in line with inflation and practice costs.

"Year on year, NHS dentists are underpaid because the rising costs don't match up with earnings, and so it's financially less effective offering NHS treatment."

Critics have claimed the units of dental activity (UDA) system does not incentivise preventative work, and is a key reason for dentists leaving the health service.

Until last year, NHS dentists in England and Wales had been using the UDA system.

UDAs are used to measure a practice’s activity. Courses of treatment - for example, a check up or a filling, are banded into UDAs.

Mr Best said: "This is essentially our currency in the industry, meaning we are paid in line with how many patients come in and out of the doors.

"In that scenario, we have to work very fast."

Lancashire Telegraph: APPOINTMENTS: Let us know if you've struggled to get a dentist appointment in the comments below this articleAPPOINTMENTS: Let us know if you've struggled to get a dentist appointment in the comments below this article

He added: "The UDA system is not fit for purpose. It doesn't drive prevention, it's a target based system that doesn't allow us to educate patients and that is the key to long term, successful NHS dentistry, as it costs them less further down the line.

"We are incredibly grateful to the NHS and have been throughout the pandemic, make no mistake, I'm not going against them at all, it's just becoming a difficult way of working for dentists and that's why they're leaving to go private.

"My fear is that the government will realise these issues and make the NHS more access driven, meaning patients will get the bare basic treatment for free and any further treatment will have to be funded by themselves. That is if they keep squeezing the NHS, of course."

The Lancashire Telegraph made contact with 25 further NHS registered dentists in Blackburn with Darwen over the last week, but most were "too busy" to deal with a request for comment. Others did not wish to comment on the situation, while one highlighted a potential "misunderstanding of how NHS dentistry works" but did not wish to delve into the topic further.

An NHS spokesperson said: "The NHS has taken unprecedented action to support NHS dentists throughout the pandemic by providing additional funding for practices unable to deliver their usual levels of activity, alongside rapidly setting up 600 urgent dental centres across England so that patient services could be maintained during the pandemic.

"People should continue to come forward for the dental care they need, and the care and treatment of people who need it most should be prioritised."

At least one town in England has been unable to attract a single applicant for vacant NHS dentist posts for two years.

The British Dental Association (BDA) said unhappiness with the NHS dental contract was a key factor.

NHS England said patients who needed care the most should be prioritised, and said it had set up 600 urgent dental centres across England.

The number of NHS dentists working in two English clinical commissioning group areas (CCGs) fell by more than a quarter in the year ending March 31, 2021, with the combined equivalent of 2,435 dentists leaving the health service.

The worst-affected was NHS Portsmouth CCG, which lost 26% of its NHS dentists over 12 months.

Meanwhile, 28 other English CCGs have lost at least 10% of their NHS dentists.

The BDA’s Shawn Charlwood warned significant numbers of dentists were planning on leaving the NHS.

He said: "NHS dentistry is hanging by a thread, because without NHS dentists, there will be no NHS dentistry.

"It’s a really serious situation and every dentist that is lost or every vacancy for NHS dentistry that remains unfilled affects thousands of patients in terms of care and their ability to access care."

It is understood that one dental practice in Barnsley has had two NHS dental posts vacant for two years - without attracting a single applicant.

Mr Charlwood added: "Every practice struggling to fill vacancies translates into thousands of patients unable to access care.

"Years of failed contracts and underfunding have meant a growing number of dentists no longer see the NHS as a place to build a career. The pandemic has upped the ante, and we are now facing down an exodus.

"Ministers have failed to grasp that we can’t have NHS dentistry without NHS dentists.

"Rather than punishing colleagues, we need a service that recognises and rewards commitment."

Concern has also been raised about the usefulness of NHS England’s ‘Find a Dentist’ tool, which was created to help patients find an NHS dentist in their area.

BBC analysis shows around 75 per cent of practices in England had not updated the site to show whether they were accepting NHS patients or not within the last three months.

Interim director of Healthwatch, Chris McCann, said getting up to date information as to where people can access service is a "real issue".