Man who couldn't get NHS dental appointment diagnosed with cancer

Man, 64, who couldn’t get NHS dental appointment is diagnosed with cancer after paying £50 to go private

  • Ray, from Durham, was forced to go private as he couldn’t get an appointment
  • A dental X-ray showed a large tumour, which medics discovered was cancerous 

A 64-year-old man who couldn’t get an NHS dental appointment was diagnosed with cancer after he was forced to pay £50 to go private.

Ray, a retired NHS worker, began suffering from a sore and swollen jaw last winter which he put down to recently having a tooth removed.

He contacted his dentist when the pain persisted but was told that there were already 800 people on the waiting list. However, he could get an appointment within a week if he paid to go private, the practice said. 

After forking out the cash for the consultation, a tumour was spotted in an X-ray and Ray, from ‘dental desert’ Durham, was fast-tracked to hospital.

Ray said that if he had not paid to go private, he may not have been alive today.

Ray, a retired NHS worker, began suffering from a sore and swollen jaw last winter which he put down to recently having a tooth removed

This chart shows the number of dentists who carried out NHS activity each year, the figure dropped sharply during the Covid pandemic but has slightly recovered to just over 24,000 according to the latest data

Following a tooth removal last year, swelling that Ray had assumed was from the operation persisted and by Christmas he was struggling to eat some foods.

After struggling to get an NHS dental appointment, Ray told The Northern Echo: ‘We’re lucky that we could afford to pay.

‘Even if we’d had to save up over time it might have been too late.’

It was during the private appointment on January 26 that the tumour was diagnosed as cancerous, and by February 14 he was in receiving life-saving surgery.

In a gruelling 16-hour operation, surgeons removed part of Ray’s jaw to get to the tumour. A new jaw was formed out of bone and muscle from his leg and a skin graft was taken. 

How much does NHS dentistry cost?

There are 3 NHS charge bands:

Band 1: £23.80

Covers an examination, diagnosis and advice. If necessary, it also includes X-rays, a scale and polish, and planning for further treatment.

Band 2: £65.20

Covers all treatment included in Band 1, plus additional treatment, such as fillings, root canal treatment and removing teeth (extractions).

Band 3: £282.80

Covers all treatment included in Bands 1 and 2, plus more complex procedures, such as crowns, dentures and bridges.

For comparison, check-ups can cost between £20 and £120 at private dentists, according to Which?.

Dentures and bridges can also cost up to £2,520, the consumer watchdog says.

It is unclear what cancer Ray was diagnosed with. But mouth cancer, which affects 8,300 Brits and 54,000 Americans every year, can cause persistent pain, discomfort and swelling in the mouth that doesn’t go away.

Ray spent six weeks in hospital following his surgery, before start weekly radiotherapy sessions. His last day of treatment was on Thursday.

He can now only eat and drink fluids and has a tube fitted to his stomach to provide the nutrients he needs, but he is grateful that he was fortunate enough to be seen privately. 

‘If I hadn’t been able to afford to go private, I might not be here to tell my story,’ Ray added.

‘It doesn’t seem like much, but some people wouldn’t be able to afford £50 for a private appointment and wouldn’t be as lucky as me. Getting an appointment quick could make all the difference.’

Roughly 11million people in England failed to get an NHS dentist appointment last year, shock data from the British Dental Association suggests.

Nationally, there was only one NHS dental practice for every 4,975 people at the start of 2023.

Durham MP Mary Kelly Foy spoke of Ray’s case at Prime Minister’s Questions and led a debate into NHS Dentistry last week.

She told the Echo: ‘Ray’s story captures the harsh reality of living in a dental desert.

‘More than 1,000 dentists have left the NHS since the pandemic – NHS dentistry now exists on paper but not in practice.

‘If Ray had not been able to afford private treatment he might not be here today. It is morally wrong that anyone is put in that position – yet affordable dental care continues to decay before our eyes.’

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