Published on October 10, 2011

Does NHS dentistry cost too much – or not enough?

As mentioned in a previous post, dentists’ charges in the UK are to be investigated by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). At first glance, though, the focus of this study seems to be less on cost and more on simplification – the idea being that given the disparity between NHS and private treatment options, and pricing differences between practices, choosing the right care is too confusing for patients.  The OFT’s market survey will look at quality, choice and clarity in dental treatment in the UK, and if cost is assessed at all it may well be private dentistry which comes under scrutiny.

But should NHS treatment be cheaper? In March an NHS Information Centre poll found that one in 5 had put off treatment due to cost. A previous survey put this figure at over 25%, placing financial concerns above extreme anxiety as a reason to avoid the dentist’s chair.  Exemptions exist for certain groups, and prices are certainly lower than private treatment – but if you were to have crowns fitted, for example, you should expect to be about £200 out of pocket. Surely this is too expensive?

Quite the opposite, said Professor Jimmy Steele of Newcastle University in a 2009 editorial on the BBC news website. His argument is that some of these procedures – crowns included – are not ‘necessary’ in that one could continue to function without them, even if it meant the extraction of a tooth. His suggestion, therefore, is that such procedures should in fact cost more – though still, ideally, less than the equivalent private treatment – in order to make the limited pot of NHS gold go further. The funds this freed up could perhaps be used to progress towards universal access to NHS dentistry.

But ‘necessary’ is a relative and a subjective term – would you be happy for a procedure to be considered optional if you would lose a tooth without it?

BBC announcement of OFT survey:

An overview of the recent NHS IC report:

And details of the older ADH survey:

Professor Steele’s viewpoint:

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