Swathes of the North East and North Yorkshire are becoming ‘dental deserts’, The Northern Echo can reveal.

Amid horror stories of people pulling their own teeth out and children being left in agony, the Echo found fewer than 20 of the region’s dentists are accepting new NHS patients.

Darlington, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Whitby are among the areas where there appear to be no dental practices currently open to patients without a referral.

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The British Dental Association warned NHS dentistry is on the brink of collapse after the Echo analysed records for nearly 200 practices across the North East and North Yorkshire.

According to the NHS ‘Find a Dentist’ online service, just 19 were clearly open to all NHS patients without a referral and 18 more were open only to children.

The Echo understands referrals can only usually be made when a patient is already registered with a dentist.

Out of those, most were in Tyne and Wear, with a practice in Redcar understood to be the only one accepting patients in Teesside while across County Durham, there were three in Stanley and just one in Durham itself.

Politicians across the region have been inundated with messages from constituents begging for help in finding a dentist, with one Darlington man telling his local councillors that he had been forced to remove two of his own teeth.

Thousands of people in our area are lingering on dentists' waiting lists - and some have been there for a year or longer, with many forced to seek costly private treatment during their wait.

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A spokesman for the British Dental Association said an “unprecedented collapse in NHS commitment” among dentists could spell the end of the service without radical and urgent Government action.

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The BDA believe thousands of dentists across the country have have moved away from NHS work entirely since the start of the pandemic.

However, this could be an underestimation of the real drop in capacity, given many more have reduced their NHS commitments.

Echo analysis of NHS statistics found a 41 per cent drop across North East CCGs in ‘units of dental activity’ carried out between the second quarter of 2018-19 and the same period in 2021-22.

That incorporates a drop of 57 per cent in band one treatments, usually associated with routine care and check-ups.

The region also has the highest level of child tooth decay and extraction in the country.

The recent decline in NHS dentistry has been linked to health service contracts that see dentists paid similarly per unit of work – regardless of how complex that work is.

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Shawn Charlwood, from the BDA, said: “This Government has ensured many dentists cannot see a future in this service.

“Without urgent reform and adequate funding there is little hope we can halt this exodus.”

He added: “Access problems remain the norm, oral health inequality is set to widen, while a growing number of dentists are walking away from the NHS.

“This is how NHS dentistry will die – a lingering decline that unchecked will leave millions of patients with no options.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said it was working with the NHS to reform the dental system and is negotiating improvements to its contract with the BDA to increase access for patients and ensure working in the NHS remains attractive to dentists.

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He added: “The NHS commits around £3 billion to dentistry each year and last year we delivered an additional £50 million to fund up to 350,000 extra dental appointments.”

Dental practices are working to tackle workforce issues and to increase capacity during a time of high demand, a spokesman for the NHS said.

Dentists are expected to update their availability via the Find a Dentist service - but some had not submitted details recently.

The Echo called several of those and in each case, was told new NHS patients were not being accepted without a referral.

The NHS said anyone with an urgent problem should continue to contact their local NHS dental practice where they will be triaged depending on the care needed.

If the practice is unable to offer an appointment, patients can call 111 - if deemed clinically urgent, an appointment can then be made at the nearest urgent dental care hub.