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Grim outlook: A UK-wide survey found that the demand for dental treatment is expected to increase in 2021, but that practice income and patient volumes are expected to fall. (Image: buritora/Shutterstock)

UK dentists expect drop in earnings, patient numbers in 2021

By Jeremy Booth, Dental Tribune International
January 05, 2021

LONDON, UK: A new report commissioned by the General Dental Council (GDC) has found that UK dental professionals are pessimistic about being able to meet expected demand for dental treatment in 2021. The majority of respondents to an online survey expected that the pandemic would continue to limit treatment capacities and that drops in income experienced in 2020 would continue throughout the new year.

The report was based on the results of a UK-wide survey that was conducted online in September and October. More than three-quarters (77%) of the dentists and more than half (58%) of the dental care professionals who responded said that they expected to provide dental care to fewer patients in the coming 12 months. The average expected decrease in patient numbers was 45%. Respondents providing predominantly NHS care expected patient numbers to decrease by 51%, which was a greater expected decrease than that expected by those providing mixed (45%) or predominantly private (38%) dental care.

Slightly less than two-thirds (64%) of all respondents said that they anticipated that the demand for dental services would increase, and less than half (45%) said that they were confident that they would be able to meet the demand. The demand for emergency dental care was expected to increase in NHS, mixed and private practices, and more than half (55%) of all respondents were confident that they could meet increased demand for emergency care—one-third said that they were not confident and 12% said that they were unsure.

Specific concerns about reduced capacity in hospital and community were raised by focus group participants who worked in these settings (dentists and dental nurses), in particular the challenges faced with managing the backlog of patients waiting for treatment since before lockdown in March 2020,” the report read.

Dentists expect earnings to drop in 2021

The report found that the majority of UK dental businesses experienced a drop in income in 2020 owing to the pandemic and that the adverse financial effects were expected to continue. More than three-quarters (78%) of the respondents who owned dental businesses said that the current income at their practice was lower than it had been in the same period last year, and 68% said that they expected their income to decrease in 2021 compared with their income in the 12-month period prior to the first lockdown.

Just 2% of dental business owners reported that their practice income had increased during the pandemic

Business owners who reported a decrease in income in 2020 said that their current mean income had dropped by 45% and that their projected mean income for 2021 would represent a drop of 41% compared with that of pre-pandemic levels.

Just 2% of dental business owners reported that their practice income had increased during the pandemic, and 5% said that they anticipated their practice income to increase in 2021. Predominantly private dental businesses made up 80% of those who anticipated an increase in income.

More than one-third of dental business owners reported that they expected to employ fewer staff by the end of 2021, and 17% said that they expected to make redundancies.

The report, The Impact of COVID-19 on Dental Professionals, includes in-depth information on the effects of the pandemic on costs and business models and can be accessed here.

Ongoing research into effects of pandemic on dental care

The new research was welcomed by Stefan Czerniawski, the GDC’s executive director of strategy. Czerniawski said in a statement: “COVID-19 has hit dental services hard and dental professionals have made huge efforts to sustain patient care in the face of unprecedented challenges. This report captures the experience of dental professionals in meeting those challenges and their expectations of the year ahead.”

“COVID-19 has hit dental services hard”
– Stefan Czerniawski, GDC

He continued: “Dental professionals have had to make difficult judgements about how best to support their patients during the pandemic period. At the GDC we recognise that and repeat our commitment to take environmental and human factors relating to COVID-19 into account in approaching any concerns raised with us about those judgements.”

The research is part of a broader research programme that aims to understand the impact of the pandemic on oral health and dentistry in the UK. The survey was undertaken by Ecorys UK. It received 9,388 responses to the online survey and explored issues raised by the survey results with six online focus groups comprised of 54 dental professionals.

The GDC said that further findings and insights from the research programme would be released in the coming weeks.

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