A painful dental check-up

24 August 2009

 No one likes going to the dentist. It’s never comfortable opening your mouth (‘Wider please,’ they say. ‘Open wider!’) and having every single tooth prodded and scraped. Not to mention the unlucky ones who get the pneumatic drill experience of having a filling and their mouths stuffed with cotton wool as they gasp and gulp and blink tears away.

And what about the nauseating clinical smell of the dentist; the patronising talk about how you should floss every day; the scolding about how even sparkling water and fruit juice can damage your teeth?

Factor in the difficulty of finding NHS dentists and scary stories of dental malpractice and it’s no wonder there’s an intense fear of going to the dentist.

Much of today’s society is just not bothering to get their teeth checked. This summer it was revealed that a third of people in Sheffield have not seen an NHS dentist in two years and more than a third of people in Barnsley - 38 per cent - have also not visited an NHS dentist.

Well, I’ll put my hand up and confess that I didn’t see a dentist for a whopping seven years. From age 16 to 23, I didn’t once sit in a dentist’s chair. Probably something to do with my children’s dentist not accepting me anymore and A-levels and university getting in the way of me taking the time to find a new dentist.

You’ll be pleased to know that I am now getting annual check-ups. But one experience with an NHS dentist has left me far from pleased.

Four months ago I went to my dentist in Elephant & Castle, London, for a check-up.

I was told that I needed two, maybe three, fillings. She then told me that she couldn’t do all the work on the NHS.

Now, the NHS stipulates very clearly that if an NHS patient is accepted at a dental practice (I was accepted  at the surgery 16 months prior to this incident), then all dental work must be done within the NHS bands, and paid for accordingly.

For ‘two or three’ fillings this falls under Band 2, which is a flat charge of £45.60. ‘This covers everything listed in Band 1 [exam, diagnosis, scale and polish] plus any further treatment such as fillings, root canal work or if your dentist needs to take out one or more of your teeth,’ says the NHS guidelines.

I knew my rights, so I argued with the dentist, saying all the fillings should be done on the NHS and I should pay £45.60 for this.

She responded by saying that the treatment would ‘bankrupt’ them if it was all done on the NHS, and that she would only do one filling on the NHS, the rest would have to be done privately (incurring additional hefty fees).

I wasn’t sure what to do. If I walked away and found another NHS dentist, I’d have to pay them £16.50 for the check-up anyway, and then a new fee of £45.60.

So I went back to my dentist a week later to see if I could reason with her again. This time, she’d changed her tune. She told me that she’d do the one filling today, and the other filling was small and could be done in three months time. So the dentist would then pocket another £45.60. The third filling? ‘No, you don’t need a third filling. Just one today, and one in three months time.’

To this day, I’m still disappointed in myself that I eventually agreed and had the one filling, and didn’t instead get straight on the phone to my local primary care trust (PCT), exposing this malpractice.

I didn’t go back to that dentist for the second filling. I have now moved so I found a new NHS dentist in Hackney, which was recommended to me by a friend.

I went there last week for a ‘check-up’, knowing that I’d need a couple of fillings. My nice new friendly dentist asked me when I’d had my last check-up, which meant I ended up regaling the whole story as she was surprised that I’d had a check-up just four months ago.

There’s no other way to describe it, but she was horrified. ‘That is completely illegal! This is what gives dentists a bad name!’ she squawked. As well as chastising me for having snacks between meals and drinking too much alcohol, she also told me off for not reported it to the PCT, and not using my job as a journalist to expose her.

So here we are. The letter to the PCT went in the post later that day. And here’s my story for everyone to view online. I’m not going to name the dentist (I might later when I hear back from the PCT), but I would like to warn everyone about their rights when it comes to NHS dentists.

You could even take along a copy of the pay bands, which can be found on the NHS website, to the dentist. And if your dentist isn’t playing ball, ask to speak to their colleagues. If they all seem intent on flouting the NHS rules then contact the PCT as this is one dental practice that needs to be urgently investigated.

Oh, and so what treatment did my new dentist tell me I needed? Three fillings and a crown. 

Ruth Emery is deputy editor of Money Observer, Moneywise's sister publication