I got a call from the BBC earlier today to ask me my views on NHS Dentistry in Reading West. I guessed that the question would be related to lack of dentists accepting NHS patients.And I was right.Apparently the Conservative Shadow Health Secretary was visiting and had raised the issue on the back of a local survey his party had done. I won't dispute that this is a common concern in the local community here - it is certainly is. But I thought it was important to get some facts straight about the situation here in Reading - something I have a unique perspective on in this election campaign through my time spent as Chair of Health Scrutiny on Reading Borough Council for the past 2 years. When I first moved to Reading from London in 2003 I recall work colleagues telling me the difficulties they had finding a dentist on the NHS. Local residents made similar points to me when I knocked on doors. So when I became chair of the main health scrutiny committee in Reading - the Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel in May 2008 I took the opportunity to get this issue on the agenda as I was concerned about it and worried about the impact this was having on people living in Reading who could not afford to go private. We have since discussed the issue several times in scrutiny - in fact it's rarely been off our agenda since I've been in the chair. Last year we called for a detailed investigation into a town centre dentists that was failing to advertise NHS services.
A quick look at the annual report produced by Berkshire West PCT Patient Advice & Liaison Service (PALS) which we discussed in public in scrutiny last September shows that the number one NHS service people in our area contacted PALS about was Dental Services - this accounted for 1980 of all enquiries - around 46% of PALs caseload. In my capacity as Chair of HHCC Scrutiny Panel I have regularly asked questions of the Primary Care Trust (PCT) to find out what is behind these figures. What the PCT told me was that the issue in our area is not a lack of dentists taking NHS patients but a widespread misconception out there that NHS dentists are in short supply (when in fact they are not): (from the most recent PALs report)"Reading has a good geographical spread of NHS dental practices which means that the area is well served. There are currently 9 dental practices in Reading who are accepting new adult NHS patients. There are also a series of Community Dental Clinics and an on-call rota offering emergency intervention for patients who need urgent treatment and those with complex needs. However, despite widespread advertisement it is still proving difficult to break the public’s misconception that there are no NHS dentists in the area.The important question I ask every year when this issue comes up is- what is the PCT doing to help patients and improve health outcomes? The answer I got was this: "PALS ensure that information about local practices who are accepting new NHS patients is kept up to date and is published on the PCT’s website. Posters have been issued to GP practices and Pharmacies encouraging them to display lists of local dentists who are accepting new patients. Information has been included in the PCT’s ‘Your Guide to Local Health Services’ which has been published as part of each Local Authority’s annual newsletter / report to residents." I telephoned the PCT this afternoon to check my facts and was told that the issue continues to be one of communication, not lack of NHS Dentists. More clearly needs to be done to get the message across to residents about dental services but also to improve oral health in our community. If you want to find a dentist accepting new NHS patients try this link.
It is Lib Dem policy to give local people more influence over local health services in their area by introducing locally elected health boards. At present there is too little accountability in our health services. Our health scrutiny panel in Reading only meets 5 times a year and health issues have to be fitted around housing and community care items. People can complain via PALS and the LINK but it is actually very difficult fore local people to get action taken on health matters. A really big issue in Reading in relation to dentistry is poor oral health - particularly amongst young children in deprived areas. The facts are these: Reading has twice the decayed, filled and missing teeth (dmf-t) score compared to Wokingham.Variation within Reading is greater than that found between other PCTs or at a national level. This is a major indicator of child poverty.This is related to poor diet and linked to health inequality - something I have campaigned to get on the local political agenda and a key focus of our recent scrutiny review into children's health. Better health outcomes wherever you live and no matter how much money you have in Reading West is a real priority for me.I will be discussing what Reading Borough Council and local health bodies can do to improve children's health on April 12 when I present our scrutiny review recommendations to the Labour-run Cabinet. I'm glad that Labour, Conservative and Green candidates for Reading West agree with me that NHS dental services are important. What sets me apart from all three of them is the fact that I have years of experience under my belt campaigning for better health services and better public health locally which I have gained as a local councillor and chair of health scrutiny in Reading. Visit my Council blog for more details.