‘I pulled my own teeth’: life in Darlington’s ‘tooth desert’

People have their teeth pulled out, children leave in agony, thousands linger on a waiting list at a dental clinic – that’s the grim reality of life in a dental desert.

Today, Echoes of the North reveals how our region’s towns and villages don’t have a single dentist opening up to new NHS patients.

Read more: Northeast’s ‘tooth desert’ revealed

Darlington is one of a growing number of towns where people in need of routine dental care may have nowhere to go.

The town has a population of more than 100,000 people, but an NHS search for dental services showed there were no dental clinics available for patients without referrals.

Residents struggling to get routine and emergency dental care are bombarding their politicians, begging for help – Peter Gibson, the town’s councillor, told parliament last week that he had been contacted by dozens this year alone.

Joanne Dickinson is one of them. Her 11-year-old son, Liam, passed out at school with a severe face injury that required extensive dental work and was excruciatingly painful.

But the family’s dentist said Liam was no longer on their list – “We never missed an appointment and had no notice,” Ms Dickinson said.

“I called to make an appointment during the pandemic and was told they hadn’t seen anyone, which is fair.

“But after the accident we were told we were no longer on their list.”

read more: Mapping: Here’s Where You Can Find a Dentist

Ms Dickinson frantically called every dentist she could find, facing years-long waiting lists and zero availability. In the end, she paid more than £400 for her son to undergo private treatment – “we didn’t have the money”, she said.

More than a year later, she is still looking for dental care for her family.

Dentists cutting back on the NHS services they provide is a known problem, one another Darlingtonian, Martin Landers, is facing.

Mr Landers was also unexpectedly removed from his practising register and has struggled with regular dental appointments since.

Echoes of the North: Darlington MP Peter Gibson

Darlington MP Peter Gibson

Councillor Peter Gibson responded to some residents’ concerns by telling them to contact 111, but Mr Landers said the service could not help him.

“They couldn’t help me because I wasn’t bleeding heavily or in severe pain,” he said.

“Just nowhere to go.”

Darlington Labour MPs Chris McEwan and Nick Wallis recently asked residents about their dental care experience in the town and received a flood of responses.

One man said he had been on a waiting list for more than a year, adding: “Even though my teeth are very loose, I can’t get any appointments, I can’t eat properly, which is not good as a diabetic.

“I ended up pulling two teeth myself.”

Cllr Wallis said: “This is an unbearable situation and it is critical that we start to understand how to turn things around.

“There are a lot of personal experiences of real hardship, pain, suffering and hopelessness.

“It’s just a brick wall for many people when it comes to NHS dental care.”

Echoes of the North: Scheme: Cllr Chris McEwan

Cllr Chris McEwan

Cllr McEwan said the problem “has been bubbling for years” but the pandemic has exacerbated it.

He added: “It’s not just acute illness that’s worrying – if you didn’t get tested and see your dentist as a child, it could have long-term health consequences.”

Read more: Politicians’ take on the region’s dentist shortage

Peter Gibson brought Darlington’s concerns to the parliamentary debate on NHS dentistry earlier this month.

He said the current system of dental contracts was deeply flawed and suggested some dentists felt it was no longer economically viable to provide NHS dental care – “leading to providers not accepting NHS patients, or sometimes returning NHS contracts and focusing on private dental care. ”

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