Tens of thousands of children are missing out on essential checks on the health of their teeth as the HSE dental service struggles to recover from disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The number of children undergoing dental examinations in school in the last quarter of 2022 was just 65 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, new figures show.
“Since the emergence of Covid-19, there has been a significant increase in delays in accessing routine treatment for those in target classes. This has resulted in backlogs emerging in the targeted schools programme,” the HSE says.
More than 151,000 children were offered dental examinations, preventive care and restorative treatments in the last quarter of 2019, according to figures provided to Sinn Féin health spokesman, David Cullinane. This plummeted to 55,000 in the same period of 2020 as the pandemic caused schools closures and widespread disruption of dental services.
The figures have recovered somewhat, to 82,000 in 2021 and 99,000 last year, but remain a long way off pre-pandemic levels. This failure to preventive care is likely to result in a big rise in dental disease and orthodontic issues in affected children as they get older.
The size of the backlog varies across the country. In South Dublin and Roscommon, the number of children seen is above pre-pandemic levels; in Galway, it stands at just 21 per cent of the 2019 figure.
Given the lack of coverage, the HSE has prioritised children with special care needs, followed by children in sixth class.
Acknowledging the persistence of “significant backlogs” in treatment, the HSE says the extent of these backlogs in the school service as well as delays in providing preventive interventions and treatments are “concerns”.
Meanwhile, over 10,000 children were on orthodontic waiting lists in the last quarter of 2022, according to latest HSE figures. More than 2,000 of these have been on the list for more than four years.
In the southeast, more than 1,000 children have been on the waiting list for orthodontic treatment for more than four years.
Mr Cullinane has called on Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, to take “urgent and strategic action” to reduce waits for dental care.
The Waterford TD said dentistry was challenged by an undersupply of qualified dentists, dental nurses and support staff, and that public access has rapidly decreased because of underfunding.
“The dental treatment service scheme is not working. We need a new, modern contract for public dentistry. The private sector is struggling to provide services for private patients as it is, with one-in-six patients waiting over three months for appointments.”
Meanwhile, one in six dental patients are waiting over three months for an elective appointment, according to the survey by the Irish Dental Association of its members. More than half have to wait linger than three months for specialist care.
More than 50 per cent of the dentists who responded to the survey said they had tried to hire a dentist in the past 12 months and almost 60 per cent they were unable to find a suitable candidate.