When letters arrived at the homes of hundreds of dental patients in County Durham they were faced with a difficult dilemma - would they pay for their treatment or join the huge queue of people waiting for free NHS treatment elsewhere?

That was the situation that people in Seaham recently found themselves in when their local dental practice Seaham Smiles announced that it will be handing back its NHS contract at the end of March. Staff at the practice said it had become “increasingly difficult” to provide an appropriate level of care for patients under the current NHS funding arrangements. 

The news was a particular blow for mother-of-two Toni Mccourt, who is now unable to afford her own dental treatment. She had no luck finding another NHS-contracted dentist after receiving a letter in January and decided to keep her two children at Seaham Smiles. 

Child membership is priced from £7 per month, with treatment fees paid on top of that. A new patient examination for adults without a membership is priced at £75 - a stark change from the free treatment provided by the NHS for many years. 

The Northern Echo: Seaham Smiles admitted it was not an “easy” decision Seaham Smiles admitted it was not an “easy” decision (Image: Sarah Caldecott)

Toni said: “I haven't been able to get them into any other dentist, I tried so many. I used the online Find My Dentist website and everywhere said they were full, so I’ve ended up staying and will pay monthly.

“I’ve been with that dentist all my life but I don’t have one now. I can’t afford to pay for all of us. It's just down the road from where we live but I can’t go anymore. There will be a lot of kids going without dental treatment now because people can’t afford it.”

Seaham Smiles admitted it was not an “easy” decision but said it will “reluctantly” stop providing NHS dental care due to funding issues. 

A statement from the practice read: “We have always wished to provide an appropriate level of care for all patients at Seaham Smiles. But over the past few years, this goal has become increasingly difficult under the NHS funding arrangements. 

“This has not been an easy decision. Our priority is to improve the quality of dental care that Seaham Smiles can provide - including reduced appointment waiting times, longer appointments with more choices of treatments, and protected times to see therapists, all delivered in a relaxed environment.”

Seaham Smiles did not respond to comment further. 

Current patient Bill Johnson decided to stay at the practice and pay the monthly membership fee to avoid the difficulty of finding another practice with space. 

He said: “We pay £15 a month to basically stay in their system. It gets us a reduced rate when and if we need some work done. I’m at the dentist only when I have problems. My wife, however, has lupus and it affects her gums, so she has to have regular checks.”

The advent of dental practices going private means dentistry is heading towards a “full on American-style system”, said Bill. “There is no real incentive to stay in the NHS. I understand why they have done it; it's down to the government to supply what we pay for.”

Another former patient, who did not give their name, told of their shock when they received a similar letter in 2023 and now have to travel to Sunderland for treatment. They criticised the ruthlessness of the decision and empathised with families who are struggling to get in anywhere. 

“I wrote to my MP to say how outrageous it was, we couldn’t get in anywhere else,” they said. “We did manage in the end, we got in at Sunderland, but I didn’t want to go near paying for private. I’m trying to see their point of view but I think it’s pure greed. 

“It was stressful because it was four of us and my mother who were kicked out at the same time, so we were ringing round every practice.”

For many families, paying for memberships and then treatments is yet another costly bill that has increased in recent years. And while the parent is currently at an NHS-contracted dentist, there is now an understanding that other practices could follow suit.

They added: “Unless something changes it will probably happen again. If I have to pay I’m going to look for the best possible service.”

The severity of the situation locally has caused the local MP to warn of a “public health crisis”. Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, said the government needs to urgently intervene to protect the industry and patients. 

He said: "NHS Dentistry is in a state of collapse and chaos. The Government, Integrated Care Board, and Public Health are failing to understand the scale of the problem, at the expense of our communities' health and well-being.

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“The Government should create an NHS work visa to increase the number of dentists. The NHS needs to take control and directly employ dentists, rather than being dependent on independent contractors that can change their business model overnight and undermine patient care, as we have seen at Seaham Smiles."

Mr Morris called for all children to be seen annually by an NHS dentist, for check-ups at schools and better education opportunities.  

He added: “I want gifted local children to have an opportunity and be encouraged to pursue a career in NHS Dentistry. This could be achieved via student debt relief and bursaries, in exchange for taking up an NHS Dentistry position upon graduation.”