Personal protective equipment hit the headlines this week and the issue of supply has been discussed and photographed in every source of news. However, the image that really resonated with me was a picture sent in from colleagues who have resorted to modifying scuba gear in order to have some form of protection. This is a situation no healthcare professional should ever be in.
It’s one thing for NHS England to say that the ‘majority’ of urgent dental centres (UDCs) are ‘active’, but it’s quite another when the staff on those sites cannot treat patients because of a lack of essential PPE, and that’s the story we’ve been hearing from our dentists.
Anxiety levels are rising over safety
The levels of anxiety and concern amongst those who are trying to work is understandably increasing. Results from our recent survey of dentists working in UDCs across the UK paints a concerning picture.
In order to complete their work dental teams must have adequate protection. However, over half of our respondents (58%) said they did not feel fully protected against COVID-19 at their site. We are hearing that dentists are being asked to treat patients - who may have the virus - using only basic PPE.
Whether the PPE provided is appropriate is a personal choice based on a specific situation, but personally I would be thinking very carefully about using basic PPE in these circumstances.
The devolved nations, who have managed to get their guidance and UDCs up and running more swiftly than England, are in a better position. Yet they are also reporting some issues - 38% of dentists in both Wales and Northern Ireland said PPE was affecting them, while 20% in Scotland confirmed the same.
Dentists on the frontline
So many of our members have been contacting us to ask if there is anything they can do to help treat dental patients in these unprecedented times of COVID-19.
I have been amazed at the strength and selflessness of many of our colleagues who are willing to put themselves on the frontline. They are helping to establish and work in the UDCs across the country and to help treat patients and rid them of dental pain.
Many have even asked if they can try to buy their own PPE and reopen their practices, as patients are hammering down their doors in desperation. Those of us who are small business owners are also desperate to treat patients in order to keep our businesses surviving. Unfortunately, we have not been able to offer much solace, although we have been lobbying the Chancellor on these issues.
Patients are desperate for treatment
With our patients having nowhere to go we have been hearing horrific stories such as people resorting to pulling out their own teeth and pregnant women travelling 300 miles to get treatment. Oral disease isn’t often seen as life-threatening yet we know that sometimes it can be - and some of these patients need to be treated by a dentist now.
Patients have been writing in to us to ask where their nearest centre is. They report that the information is patchy and NHS 111 don’t know where to send them.
Dentists say that their patients are calling them in desperation. One shared a story of a patient who had his teeth shattered during a mugging. The patient went to A&E but his teeth were not treated there. When he tried calling NHS 111 he was told it "wasn't an emergency".
Others discuss feelings of helplessness that they cannot do any dentistry. Some are taking on volunteering roles in the community and ringing some of their more vulnerable patients every day to check they are doing ok. Private practices have been trying to buy their own PPE so they can continue to care for their patients.
We need to act now for our dentists. We need to ensure they can do the job they want to do, while guaranteeing that they can do it safely and avoid becoming ‘super-spreaders’.
We have added our voice to call on the government to get PPE manufactured and out to everyone who is working on the NHS front line.
Mick Armstrong, Chair