Hot Topic: Shortages of Doctors and Dentists

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The UK is currently battling an alarming shortage of both doctors and dentists. Avoiding sensationalist headlines, and sticking to the facts, we still find that there is a very real issue at play. Here, we will analyse both the lack of doctors, and that of dentists.

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Shortage of Doctors in the UK

Relative to other nations, England has a very low number of doctors, relative to its population. There are just 2.9 doctors per 1000 people – the average in the EU is 3.7, and Germany has 4.3. Therefore England would need an extra 46,000 doctors to bring us up to the EU average, and far more to reach the level of countries like Germany. In fact, not one area of England has the EU average; even areas that are considered ‘better-off’ still suffer a shortage of medics. The NHS has had unfilled vacancies since before the pandemic, with the problem exacerbated by it. There were 8728 medical vacancies in the NHS in December 2022 – in other words, 5.9% of all medical posts were vacant. This is actually a little lower than it was before the pandemic, when it was as high as 6.7%. However, this is no cause for celebration. The high vacancy rate causes a vicious cycle, in which staff shortages produce difficult, stressful working environments, leading to burnout, staff absence, and thus further shortages. With such stress, come further mental and physical health issues, and thus even lower retention of staff. As it stands, mental health issues are the highest reported cause of absence in secondary care. In particular, it is evident that COVID-19 has had, and is having, serious effects on the mental health of doctors. It has been consistently found that doctors have been more anxious, more depressed, and more stressed due to their work since the pandemic began. Additionally, violence or abuse towards doctors and other NHS staff is a growing issue, with more than one in three doctors having experienced verbal abuse in total.

Added to this is the number of doctors taking early retirement – more than three times as many doctors have chosen to follow this route now than they did just thirteen years ago, with the stress of working in today’s NHS likely both a causative factor for them, and for future retirees. Almost half of respondents to a BMA survey in 2021 agreed that they planned to retire early, whilst exactly half agreed that they planned to work fewer hours following the pandemic.

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Shortage of Dentists in the UK

Meanwhile, nine out of ten NHS dental practices in the UK are not accepting new adult patients, and in a third of the UK’s 200 council areas there is not a single dental practice taking on new adult patients for treatment. Additionally, eight out of ten practices are not taking on children as new patients. Delving into these figures further, we find that of 6880 practices surveyed (8533 in total hold NHS contracts), 91% were not accepting new adult patients overall, a number that rose as high as 98% in the South West, North West and Yorkshire. However, 23% had an open waiting list, although 16% stated that the wait for treatment would be a year or more. This has led to great pressure not just on dentists, but on patients too – stories that might seem apocryphal, like patients having to pull their own teeth, have become reality – something that stands out as starkly highlighting this issue in a supposedly-developed first world country.

The shortage of dentists has a mixture of factors behind it. IN particular, there are far too few new dentists being trained – the UK simply does not have enough places for dental students as it stands. Additionally, the impact of Brexit, COVID-19 and its lingering effects, and dentists’ dissatisfaction with their NHS contracts have all had significant effects. This has led to a shortage that is being exacerbated by the number of dentists retiring – as it stands, 14% of NHS dentists are approaching retirement – 3416 in total of the country’s 23,733 dentists are over the age of 55, and perhaps unlikely to wish to carry on working for the NHS for much longer.

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