HSE dental surgeons have warned that staff shortages, clinic closures and a lack of policy and direction by the HSE are putting an intolerable burden on the Public Dental Service and undermining its ability to provide an effective service.
Speaking at the HSE dentists annual seminar in Athlone, the Chief Executive of the Irish Dental Association pointed out that while the under 16 population had increased by 20% over the past decade to 1.1m, the number of dentists in the Public Dental service charged with looking after their oral health had dropped by 20% due to a recruitment embargo.
Addressing over 200 delegates at the seminar, Fintan Hourihan said the fact that dentists in some areas were pulling almost as many children's teeth as they were filling was a stark example of how bad the situation had become. He called on the Minister for Health, Simon Harris to intervene in the situation immediately.
"For example the situation in Laois/Offaly is simply shocking. Last year in Laois dentists carried out 1,200 extractions and 1,800 fillings. In Offaly it was 915 extractions and 1,100 fillings. We believe this is a direct result of the collapse of the school screenings in these areas as children in these counties are not being seen until they are in first year in secondary school. In Laois the number of under 16s has increased by 40% since 2002 but the number of dentists has fallen by 42% since 2008"
"Figures for six community care areas - for which exact numbers are available - show that almost 16,000 primary school children missed their school screening last year. A partial screening service at best is on offer in most other counties. In addition dental clinics are being closed down - two have been closed in Clondalkin in West Dublin recently - which is leading to ever lengthening waiting lists."
Hourihan said the failings of the school screening system due to understaffing meant issues were not being identified at an early stage and as a result thousands of children were undergoing painful operations under general anaesthetic.
"The average age for children to undergo extractions under general anaesthetic is six, while some children as young as two require this treatment. Some children are having more than nine teeth extracted. We pointed out last year that 10,000 children were undergoing extractions under GA. The HSE showed how out of touch they are with the situation by saying the figure was as low as 3,000 but a HSE report published a short time later affirmed the IDA figure. There is no way this level of extractions should be happening in a first world country," Hourihan said.
The IDA warned that the prospect of industrial action by dentists in defence of patient interests is moving closer all the time.
Hourihan said the Minister had to intervene personally and to sanction a number of senior appointments.
"If we are serious about turning back the clock on years of cut backs and mismanagement we need to establish a dedicated budget for HSE dental services and we need a full-time HSE Director of Oral Health and a full-time Chief Dental Officer independent of the HSE to be appointed," he concluded.