Free dental care pop-up comes to Kingston as NHS waiting lists rise

On two days last week the Cambridge Road Estate welcomed a mobile dental unit run by Dentaid, a charity dedicated to providing dental services to those in need.

The service is run with the help of RBKares, a local organisation that lends a helping hand for the underprivileged across the borough.

Kate, who heads up RBKares explained that a lack of NHS dental care in the area led the charity to seeking the help of Dentaid.

She said that many of the people they see are homeless or substance abusers who have so much toothache, they “numb” it with alcohol and drugs.

“With the dental service Dentaid provide, we can stop that spiral and hopefully they can start rebuilding their lives,” she added.

But it’s not just homeless people or those suffering from substance abuse issues, but also people simply struggling to make ends meet.

“If you’re trying to find an NHS dentist and you’ve got to choose between feeding your children or having a filling, you’re going to have to feed your children,” she said.

Photo of a homeless person.
Credit: Maureen McLean/Shutterstock Many people seen by Dentaid are homeless or struggling with substance abuse.

According to a BBC survey conducted in 2022, nine out of ten dental clinics that offer NHS services are not accepting new adult patients.

Waiting lists are also spiralling out of control. People who booked an appointment to see an NHS dentist in 2021 are only being started to be seen this year – a full three years later.

This comes as statistics released by the National Audit Office show the UK has the fewest dentists per head of population that any of the other G7 European nations at just 5.3 per 10,000.

One of the only options left for people is to go private, but with consultations costing as much as £150, and the cost-of-living crisis continuing to bite, many are left with no choice but to forgo the dentist altogether.

Though local governments have seen their funding slashed by Westminster, with annual spending on dentistry cut by £1bn in real terms since 2010, Kingston is still finding ways to help organisations like RBKares.

They have provided funding to RBKares through ‘resilience grants’ and paid for the Dentaid bus, which costs £400 an hour.

Kate welcomed the move, saying the council had been “quite supportive” but that given the amount of aid RBKares provides, she could “always do with more”.

Cristos, who has come in twice for teeth cleaning, said the service was “wonderful” and made a “big difference” for people like himself:

“I earn £1200 a month and spend £1000 of that on my rent, so I can’t afford [private dentistry]. I also have cardiac problems which are linked to my teeth,  so I don’t know what I’d do [without this service].”

He added that long waiting lists at local NHS clinics meant the Dentaid bus was one of his only options.

Cristos, a patient at the Dentaid bus.
Credit: Charlie Johnson A smiling Cristos, teeth gleaming after having been cleaned by the team in the Dentaid bus.

Despo Stevens, who volunteers for RBK and helps to run a local food bank said much of the problems stem from the cost-of-living crisis.

“We started giving out huge amounts of uncooked food like Samosas but people were turning around and saying that they can’t use their oven – it’s too expensive. It is absolutely a crisis at the moment, we see it all the time,” she explained.

She also pointed out how much of a positive impact the dental service has on the community:

“One person had to have all his teeth removed but when he came to the food bank the following week he was smiling. It was life-changing for him. It’s just been a really interesting journey.”

“There is a great need here in Kingston for dental care, but no national health dentist was willing to give up any of their time as a volunteer until we heard about the Dentaid Bus,” she added.

Despo Stevens, a volunteer at RBKares and a local food bank.
Credit Charlie Johnson Despo Stevens, a retired headteacher who volunteers for RBKares, said she was “humbled” by those who come in for treatment.

Despite having a population of 168,000, Kingston has just two dental clinics which offer services on the NHS.

Susannah, who is a dental nurse and helps supervise the mobile clinic emphasised anyone in need was welcome to drop in:

“We spend quite a lot of time with them before they go on board, getting to know them and understanding their needs and it’s a really nice time because we do it without judgment. I think patients really value that.”

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