The incoming President of the Irish Dental Association (IDA) has warned that public service dentistry is facing a resourcing crisis given the impact of Covid-19.
Speaking today, Dr. Anne O’Neill said: “Before the emergence of Covid-19, the provision of public service dentistry in Ireland was a cause for concern – now our resourcing levels have become a full-blown crisis.
“The HSE Community Dental Service deals with our most vulnerable special needs patients and children, yet according to the IDA members’ survey, across the country between 25% and 40% of its skilled staff have been assigned to assist in testing and contact tracing for Covid-19 and have not been replaced. As a result, the vital needs of our patients simply cannot be met.”
Dr. O’Neill said that important services such as annual school assessments had fallen far behind, putting children’s health at risk. “Usually we would be starting assessments for the new school year at this time, but because of Covid-19 we have a large backlog from last year and are well behind on reaching our target class population. Without the requisite skilled staff and additional resources we cannot make up that gap, and the opportunity to identify problems early is permanently lost.”
She said that the indirect effects of Covid-19 had also had a significant effect. “Covid-19 has slowed the process of providing dental care in many aspects, reducing the number of patients which can be seen in the day. We need to conduct a public health risk assessment before every dental treatment, which impacts on every single appointment, adding greatly to dentists’ workflow.”
Dr. O’Neill said that the loss of skilled staff could not be solved easily. “These are experienced dentists who have specialist skills and knowledge of treating children and people with special needs. We cannot simply replace them overnight – we urgently need a detailed resourcing plan from the Government if we are to provide patients with the care they need.”
Last July, the IDA surveyed almost 600 private and public service dentists. It found that prior to the introduction of Covid-19 restrictions, 37% of public dentists reported seeing more than 15 patients per day. That number is now 0%, with the vast majority now seeing fewer than 10 patients per day (82%). This has contributed to significantly increased waiting times for non-emergency appointments, which now average 101 days.
The IDA has pointed out previously that the public dental service has seen a 20% reduction in dentist numbers in recent years, while the number of patients eligible for treatment by the public service has risen by the same amount.
Dr. O’Neill said that a failure to immediately address this crisis will have significant long-term implications. “Oral health is a crucial part of a person’s overall health. Our current resourcing levels mean that we are missing early-stage issues in both children and patients with special needs which could have major long-term health effects.”
She said that skilled staff needed to be moved back into their original roles, along with additional staff who can develop the skills to treat child and adult patients who rely on the service to provide them with dental care.
The IDA is the representative body for 2,000 dentists (public and private) practising in Ireland.