A PUBLIC meeting is to be held about the shortage of NHS dentists in north Durham.

Patients in need of treatment are being urged to get in touch with the Patient and Public Involvement Forum (PPIF) for Durham and Chester-le-Street.

The consulting body's spokesman John High, of Shincliffe, said it wanted to collect the views and experiences of as many people as possible.

He said: "Some people, particularly those in our most deprived communities, only see a dentist in an emergency.

"We need to ensure that as well as having good oral education, everyone is aware of the importance of being registered with a local dentist and has regular check-ups.

"We also want to explore why the Durham and Chester- le-Street PCT find it so difficult to attract new dentists - which leaves holes in local provision." The forum has already drawn attention to the wording of check-up reminder letters sent out by a dental practice, which were leading patients to believe that a six-monthly check-up was necessary to renew registration.

NHS patients are registered for 15 months irrespective of check-up regularity.

The forum's intervention has led to one dental practice changing the wording of its patient letters.

A meeting will be organised later this year with Durham and Chester-le-Street Primary Care Trust.

Dr Tricia Cresswell, director of public health for the Trust, said it had already taken on two salaried dentists purely to deal with NHS patients.

She said: "We are very much aware of the problem and everyone needs access to a dentist.

"What happens in places like Durham is that there are more people than dentists can cope with so they can make quite a good living from going private.

"There is nothing we can do about that but we are trying to encourage more dentists to spend a certain amount of time seeing NHS patients."

Last year Durham MP Gerry Steinberg accused dentists of exploiting the NHS shortage by forcing patients to go private so they could double their £50,000 salary.

If you would like to contact the PPIF with your views and experiences of dentist provision throughout Durham and Chester-le-Street, contact Michael Fishwick, forum supportco-ordinatoron (01429) 823 067.