Last year, with great reluctance, I was forced to register with a new dentist after a filling fell out and it became difficult to chew.
My previous dentist had been pressuring me into having costly treatments that served no purpose other than lining his own pockets, so I vowed to stop having check-ups altogether. Consequently, it had been more than ten years since I last opened wide and heard the dreaded sound of the drill.
My new dentist, a lady practitioner who came glowingly recommended, just smiled when I told her it had been a decade since my teeth were last examined. ‘Not a dentist by any chance, are you?’ She laughed.
Dentists, she told me, are notorious for avoiding check-ups. But then, they know a lot more about the business than we do.
Last week, the Government warned the public to ignore dentists who tell us to come for check-ups every six months. In fact, according to experts at the health watchdog, The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), most adults need to have a check-up only every two years.
The experts at Nice first issued this advice seven years ago. But since then the dental industry has done much to obliterate this fact. It undoubtedly threatens to dent their incomes.
Currently more than 70 per cent of NHS patients are called back to their dentists within nine months of their last treatment, figures from the Department of Health show. And Nice says, ‘There is good evidence that some patients are being recalled more frequently than is necessary.’
Still, it is worrying to think that you might be missing out on a vital tooth-check. So perhaps it is better to just troop along in answer to the dentist’s frequent summons? But there are strong reasons why the Nice guidelines may make better sense – both for the sake of your health and for your finances.
The first reason is to prevent overtreatment. Concerns have been raised that some dentists are exploiting the system and inflating their pay by encouraging healthy patients with strong teeth to come for needless examinations. Figures show their average salaries have soared in recent years and one in ten now earns more than the Prime Minister, taking home at least £150,000 a year.
Indeed, information gathered by the Conservatives indicates how dentists ‘play the system’ through excessive appointment-setting or needlessly splitting courses of treatment into separate sessions.
The analysis, based on figures for 2008-09, suggests that 6.8million appointments a year are conducted this way – at a cost to NHS patients of £117million in ‘unnecessary charges’. This represents a fifth of the £572million charged each year for treating NHS patients, the Tory analysis said.
Worse still, dentists can be so unscrupulous as to give you serious treatment, such as fillings, crowns and bridges, that you don’t actually need. No one knows the full extent of this practice, because it is criminal. But it is hardly unknown.
Earlier this year, for example, Constantine Saridakis, a Lincolnshire dentist, was struck off after conning patients into paying thousands of pounds for unnecessary drilling.
The South African-born dentist was found guilty of ten incidents of dishonesty by a professional conduct committee at the General Dental Council. Saridakis had apparently insisted patients with perfectly healthy teeth were suffering from decay that required essential and costly treatment despite second opinions to the contrary.
When one professional colleague challenged him, he simply said, ‘Sometimes I’m in a money-making mood.’ Only the bravery of whistle-blowing dental nurses at his practice finally brought him to book.
Countless other patients have been affected, including the former BBC presenter Anna Grayson, 57. Last year she visited her local dentist for a check-up and was told she needed a filling. Grayson had the tooth filled but when it became painful she returned only to be told she required extra treatment costing hundreds of pounds.