Data from Public Health Scotland showed that dentists saw three million fewer patients in Scotland during 2021.
Just half of all adults have seen an NHS dentist in the last two years, the latest statistics show.
With the coronavirus pandemic having seen a drop in appointments, new data from Public Health Scotland showed that as of September 30 last year, only 50.2% of adults had seen an NHS dentist in the preceding 24 months.
In 2021, dentists saw 2,215,478 patients – a drop of more than three million from the 5,337,195 seen in 2019, prior to Covid hitting.
Figures for last year showed that 461,924 children and 1,753,554 adults were seen by an NHS dentist.
- 461,924 children were seen in 2021
- 1,753,554 adults were seen in 2021
- 1,172,419 children were seen in 2019
- 4,164,776 adults were seen in 2019
That compares to 1,172,419 children and 4,164,776 adult patients who were seen in 2019 – decreases of 60.6% and 57.9% respectively.
Public Health Scotland noted: “As at 30 September 2021, 2.7 million registered patients had seen an NHS dentist within the last two years (52.6% compared to 65.1% in 2020).
“Children were more likely than adults to have seen an NHS dentist within the last two years (63.9% compared to 50.2%).”
Those living in the poorest parts of Scotland were less likely to have seen a dentist in the last two years than those in the most affluent areas, the statistics also showed.
In the most deprived areas, 55.3% of children and 45.1% of adults had had an appointment in the last two years, compared to 73.1% of children and 56.4% of adults in the least deprived communities.
Dentists’ leaders said the figures “provide further evidence of the devastating effect of the pandemic on dental services”.
Robert Donald, of the British Dental Association’s Scottish council, said: “Plummeting participation rates and the record gap in oral health inequalities present a bleak picture which will take a real commitment of time and resource to fix.
“The Scottish Government needs to heed the concerns of the profession. It’s not just their signature policy of free dentistry that risks becoming unattainable.
“Failure to act risks sparking an exodus from the workforce that will leave families across Scotland losing access to NHS dentistry for good.”
Meanwhile Labour health spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, warned “NHS dental services are fighting for survival”.
Ms Baillie, also Scottish Labour’s Covid recovery spokeswoman, said: “The pandemic has clearly wreaked havoc with services, but they have been stretched for years.
“Even children are being forced to go without care, risking serious problems being missed.
“Hundreds of thousands of appointments being lost will create a ticking time bomb in our dental care.”
While the SNP Government has pledged to make dental care free, Ms Baillie hit out: “Free dental care doesn’t count for much if no-one can get an appointment and more and more dentists are warning about an impending crisis in dentistry with an antiquated system of funding, not fit for the 21st century.”
She insisted: “The SNP must act urgently to support and rebuild dental services and protect these essential NHS services.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, also voiced his concerns, saying: “Something is rotten in the SNP’s plan for dentistry. Industry bodies have previously warned it is like being shackled to a corpse.
“There has been a huge shortfall in dentistry appointments over the pandemic and action is needed to make sure that NHS dentistry recovers.
“At this rate, many people across the country will be faced with the option of going private or going without. We need a dentistry recovery plan with real bite.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said the Public Health Scotland report “covers the period of the pandemic when dental activity was restricted to prevent the spread of the virus”.
But he added: “We are rapidly moving forward with NHS dental recovery and aim to return to pre-pandemic levels of activity.
“Record investment has been delivered in dentistry – with a 9% increase in the budget for NHS dental services in 2022-23 – and there has been a 39% increase in the number of high-street dentists in Scotland between 2007 and 2021.
“This means that there were 55.6 dentists per 100,000 of the population providing NHS care in 2021 in Scotland, compared to England where the equivalent figure last year was 39.9.
“We’re investing heavily, including the removal of NHS dental charges during the lifetime of this Parliament, to improve oral health and ensure patients get the help they need.
“We know how challenging it has been for dentists to keep services running during Covid and that’s why we’re providing dentists with an additional £20 million of increased fees from next month to give them new and additional incentives to see more patients.
“We are absolutely confident that this will help dentists clear the backlog which has arisen during the pandemic.”