Public service dentistry is facing a "full-blown resourcing crisis", the Irish Dental Association (IDA) was warned.
According to incoming IDA president, Dr Anne O'Neill, the provision of public service dentistry in Ireland was already a cause for concern prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the service's resourcing levels have been further hit in recent months, due to the redeployment of staff to testing and contact tracing for COVID-19.
"Our resourcing levels have become a full-blown crisis. The HSE Community Dental Service deals with our most vulnerable special needs patients and children, yet according to the IDA members' survey, between 25% and 40% of skilled staff have been assigned to assist in testing and contact tracing for COVID-19 and have not been replaced.
"As a result, the vital needs of our patients simply cannot be met," Dr O'Neill explained.
She pointed out that important services, such as school assessments, have fallen behind, putting children's dental health at risk.
"Usually we would be starting assessments for the new school year at this time, but because of COVID-19, we have a large backlog from last year and are well behind on reaching our target class population.
"Without the requisite skilled staff and additional resources, we cannot make up that gap, and the opportunity to identify problems early is permanently lost," Dr O'Neill said.
She emphasised that the staff who have been redeployed are experienced dentists who have specialist skills and knowledge when it comes to treating children and people with special needs.
"We cannot simply replace them overnight. We urgently need a detailed resourcing plan from the Government if we are to provide patients with the care they need," Dr O'Neill said.
She also noted that COVID-19 has "slowed the process of providing dental care" as a result of things like social distancing, which has an impact on the number of patients that can be seen each day.
Last July, the IDA surveyed almost 600 private and public service dentists. It found that prior to the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions, almost 40% of public dentists reported seeing more than 15 patients per day. The vast majority now see fewer than 10 patients per day.
This has led to significantly increased waiting times for non-emergency appointments, with the average waiting time now 101 days.
"Oral health is a crucial part of a person's overall health. Our current resourcing levels mean that we are missing early-stage issues in both children and patients with special needs, which could have major long-term health effects," Dr O'Neill added.
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