An increasing number of children are only being offered pubic dental care for the first time when they reach 6th class in primary school, dentists have warned.
As part of the public dental system, children are supposed to be offered screening in school at three different points - 1st/2nd class, 4th class and 6th class. However, according to the Irish Dental Association (IDA), many children are missing out on some of these vital appointments.
"We have received reports from our representatives across the country that increasing numbers of children are only being offered examination and dental care for the first time in sixth class, the oldest age group, instead of three age groups. This has been confirmed as policy in Cork, which joins many other parts of the country in this regard," commented president of the IDA group for HSE surgeons, Dr Grainne Dumbleton.
She pointed out that this later entry into the dental system increases the risk that patients may have to rely on emergency dental care. This, she insisted, is particularly worrying for children and vulnerable adults with additional needs who rely on the care provided by the public system.
This also puts more puts even more pressure on dentists, who are already struggling due to a lack of investment in this area. The IDA is calling for the immediate recruitment of extra dentists to cope with growing waiting lists.
"We have seen decreases of up to 23% in the number of dentists employed by the HSE for school screening in the last 10 years, and we have seen documentation confirming that waiting lists of 24 to 30 months now exist for specialist treatments," noted IDA chief executive, Fintan Hourihan.
He said that IDA members are very concerned about the viability of the proposed National Oral Health Policy, which was launched last April (see more here). It seeks to move from a risk-based, targeted public dental service model to a system where children are seen if they attend in independent dental practices.
"A targeted dental service has been in place for over 20 years. Members of our association know from experience that children rely on parents to bring them to the dentist and not every parent can prioritise visits to the dentist.
"The targeted approach has an integrated safety net to support parents and children. What safety net will be put in place for those children who are not routinely taken to the dentist? Evidence from the NHS in England has shown that just half of children entitled to attend the dentist for free actually do so," Mr Hourihan said.
He added that the IDA will ballot for industrial action in the event that the HSE makes unilateral changes to the terms and conditions of HSE dentists.
Mr Hourihan and Dr Dumbleton made their comments at the annual IDA seminar for HSE dental surgeons in Portlaoise.
Discussions on this topic are now closed.