Dental patients seeking treatment have been advised to explain their problems straight away for surgeries to decide how quickly they need help.

NHS England officials gave the advice at a council meeting, saying patients in the greatest need were bring prioritised.

They said callers to surgeries should outline their difficulties so their needs can be assessed, rather than asking to register, amid high demand for dental services.

Read more: Darlington dental horror stories given to NHS as some wait 'months'

Senior primary care manager Pauline Fletcher said: "It's really important when patients ring dental practices that they say what the issue is."

She told Darlington Borough Council's health and housing scrutiny committee: "A lot of practices are prioritising patients based on clinical need.

"So it's not that they're not taking on new patients. They're having to prioritise those patients with greatest need.

"A lot of the calls they get are patients who phone up and say, 'Can I register with your practice?'

"I think the one piece of advice that I can give is... when they phone the practice upfront they say what that dental problem is.

"That will allow the practice to consider the relative urgency of that particular patient, and if it is urgent care it'll allow them to see if they can put that patient into one of their urgent care slots.

Read more: Councillors want action over lack of Darlington NHS dentists

"At the moment, because of the issues, because of the demand, if you just phone up and ask for a routine appointment or if you phone up and ask to register with the practice, there is a high probability that the practice will say, 'I'm sorry, at the moment, we're not in a position to take on a new patient for routine care.'"

Local dental network chair Tom Robson said: "I've sat with dental receptionists and I've listened to patients calling in.

"The most common question is, 'Are you taking on new NHS patients?' They don't explain the background and context of why they're phoning."

However Cllr Ian Bell, chairing the meeting, said: "I don't think it's for our residents to be telling their symptoms over the phone straight away. I do think it's a question of signposting."

Read more: NHS dentistry on its ‘last legs’ despite data showing surge in treatments

Jill Foggin, communications manager for the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, said: "I think what I just heard us do was put the onus on the caller, the patient.

"If I was moving into this area, I would ring and ask exactly the question people are asking.

"So I don't think the onus should be on the patient. It's a communication issue.

"I think it's the responsibility of us as the professionals to make sure those poor people who are simply trying to get seen have the information they need to access the service that they're entitled to."

Ms Fletcher said: "I absolutely agree. I think communication is key.

"We're really keen to give as much information, as much guidance, to patients so that they have an understanding of how to navigate what unfortunately is quite a complex system.

"We know that capacity is an issue at the moment. We're trying to address that."

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