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GDC reveals continuing impact of COVID-19 on UK dentistry

New research from the General Dental Council indicates that UK dental professionals are suffering mentally and financially, while patients continue to face difficulties in securing adequate dental care. (Image: Marcin Balcerzak/Shutterstock)

LONDON, UK: As the statutory regulator for all dental professionals across the UK, the General Dental Council’s (GDC’s) main aim is to maximise patient safety and promote confidence in the provision of dental services. Recently, the GDC published a pair of surveys that measured the impact of COVID-19 in 2021 on dentists and dental patients, respectively. The findings of these surveys indicate that, though UK dentistry has begun to return to normal, major hurdles still exist across a number of areas.

The GDC commenced research on the impacts of COVID-19 on oral health and dentistry back in August 2020, the key findings of which it published in December that same year. This second set of surveys was conducted in the same period in 2021 and, according to the regulator, aimed to capture how the perceptions of dental professionals and the general public towards dentistry had continued to evolve throughout the pandemic.

To better understand the impact of COVID-19 on dental professionals in 2021, the GDC commissioned Pye Tait Consulting to conduct an online survey of 2,168 respondents, six focus groups with 39 total participants and five further in-depth phone interviews. One of the key findings of its research was that the well-being of UK dental professionals is markedly lower than that of the general population. Based on dental professionals’ rating of their happiness on a scale of 0 (not at all happy) to 10 (completely happy), the mean average happiness score was found to be 5.2. The average anxiety score on a scale of 0 (not at all anxious) to 10 (completely anxious) was 5.6. In comparison, a survey conducted by the Office of National Statistics found that the average happiness score in the UK in 2020/2021 was 7.31 and the average anxiety score was just 3.31.

From a financial perspective, the effects of the pandemic continued to be felt by many dental practices: 69% of respondents said that their income had decreased compared with pre-pandemic levels, significantly higher proportions of National Health Service or mixed public–private dental practices reporting reduced incomes than those working purely in private dentistry (78% compared with 63%). In addition, approximately 35% stated that they believed their income would remain lower than pre-pandemic levels over the next year.

Patients continue to face issues of access

“Dental professionals continue to rise to the extraordinary challenges posed by the pandemic, but these findings point towards a system being overstretched”

Stefan Czerniawski, executive director of strategy at the GDC

For a snapshot of the general public’s attitudes towards COVID-19 and its impact on dentistry, the GDC commissioned the Community Research company to carry out independent research. An online survey that explored attitudes about patient safety and dental visit frequency, among others, was filled out by 2,389 members of the public, spread across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Some of the findings reinforced the widespread notion that UK dentistry is dealing with challenges at a systemic level in providing adequate care for patients. Though most individuals who wanted a dental appointment had been able to secure one, 22% reported being unable to book an appointment since August 2020. A higher proportion of young people and individuals of Asian or Black ethnic backgrounds stated that they had experienced difficulties in accessing dental services, indicating that the pandemic had continued to exacerbate oral health inequalities in the UK. Meanwhile, around one-quarter of respondents said that they were still hesitant about visiting a dental practice owing to concerns about COVID-19.

“Dental professionals continue to rise to the extraordinary challenges posed by the pandemic, but these findings point towards a system being overstretched,” said Stefan Czerniawski, executive director of strategy at the GDC, in a press release.

He added: “Many of the most pressing and wide-reaching challenges highlighted in this research, such as access to services, health inequalities and pressure on professionals, will require attention and effort from everyone right across dentistry. While some of these are areas outside of the GDC’s direct control, we will use this evidence to inform all our work and share the insights with our partners to support those broader efforts to address these problems.”

Editorial note:

The GDC’s research findings on the impact of COVID-19 on oral health and dentistry are available here.

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