People from across County Derry are facing unparalleled difficulties accessing dental services through the NHS.
Of the 18 dental practices approached by the County Derry Post across the entire county, only one dentist could offer registration to new NHS patients.
One further practice stated that they can take new NHS patients but with some restrictions, for example if they were on certain benefits or had recently had a baby.
The remaining 16 practices said they can not take on any new patients via the NHS.
Dental practices were approached from all areas of the county including Kilrea, Garvagh, Dungiven, Limavady, Maghera and Magherafelt.
Many practices cited having waiting lists into next year for new patients to even register their names.
Some were advising hopeful patients to 'ring again next year' whilst others offered to put the patient name on their waiting list, but that there are already 200 names waiting ahead of them.
Eight local dentists said they have no capacity on their patient list for NHS patients, but can offer private appointments.
East Derry MLA Cara Hunter last night said: “I am well aware of the issues that people in East Derry are experiencing accessing dental services and have been contacted by a number of constituents who have told me about their struggles to get registered with an NHS dental surgery.
“Following this engagement I contacted Health Minister Robin Swann to raise my concerns and he said that the Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on capacity and that patients should be prepared to ‘contact a number of practices and perhaps travel further than normal to be seen’.
“The Department of Health has taken steps to address these issues and I have been reassured that urgent care is available but as the lack of practices willing to take new patients shows, much more needs to be done to get provision back to pre-pandemic levels as soon as possible.
“This is particularly important in an area like East Derry, which contains many rural communities where people may not be able to travel long distances to get the treatment they need.
“I want to reassure patients that in the event of an emergency they will be able to access care and would call on the department to do a better job of signposting people to these services. Unfortunately dental services are yet another aspect of our NHS that is struggling due to a lack of health services reform and investment that is being held up by the DUP’s boycott of our institutions.
“Until these issues are addressed, my constituency office will be happy to help anyone who is struggling to access dental care and can point them to the services available to help with their issues.”
Sinn Féin MLA Emma Sheerin added her concerns saying: “The failures in our health service are well documented and this issue with capacity for dental patients is another example of a long running problem whereby the NHS is not working as it should. I've had constituents contact me about this issue in agony, unable to access the care they need and as a result, putting off minor issues until they are left in pain.
“Years of Tory austerity have left us with a deliberately underfunded NHS, and that's been compounded by abysmal workforce planning within our local health department.
“The DUP should end their boycott of the institutions so that we can invest in our local health service and deliver for people.”
When contacted, a Department of Health spokesperson said, “General Dental Services (GDS) have been significantly impacted by the pandemic and capacity issues within the system remain. The Department acknowledges it has been a difficult and challenging time for many patients who have had to wait much longer than usual for treatment and has responded by investing more than ever in dental practices to support them during this period.
“Patients who are currently not registered with a Health Service dentist, and wish to become registered may unfortunately have to contact multiple practices, and consider travelling further than normal.
“In response to the difficulties facing patients, the Department of Health is developing a dedicated scheme to improve access to dental care for unregistered patients who are experiencing an urgent or emergency dental issue. It is expected that the scheme will be piloted in September 2022.
“The Department of Health continues to engage with the dental practitioners to address concerns and seek additional solutions to the current backlog of care.”
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.