Tony Kilcoyne: marketing is the answer to NHS dentistry crisis

You probably saw the petition by 400 dentists in the Telegraph last weekend calling for an end to ‘Third World’ dental standards in the NHS.

If you didn’t, here it is. If you’ve got the stomach, scroll down to the bottom and have a look at the comments. It’s pretty disheartening stuff and shows the public, or some of it at least, blame dentists for everything.

We called the campaigning dentist behind the petition, Dr Tony Kilcoyne, to see what he thought the implications were for dentists…


Why do you think the public has such a low opinion of dentists?

“Most of the public don’t have the knowledge to understand the role of dentists. For too many people, dental treatment is a distress purchase; they tend to turn up at the dentist in pain or with a broken tooth, and the idea of prevention is not even on their radar because historically the public have never been educated or encouraged to think like that. This is not the case in other places like Scandinavia where more is done at general media information level. Of course it’s crazy when people have to wait until they get to the dental practice to get some basic self care and prevention information, when they might already be in a distressed state and not really prepared to listen, while time-poor dentists have only seconds to get across their message. The patient’s impression is of a very brief, expensive visit that doesn’t meet their needs.”

Is the solution to this a marketing job by dentists outside the NHS, if the NHS won’t do it?

“As you know marketing really means finding out what the public want, informing them of their options and letting them make an informed choice. Most people are not making an informed choice about dentistry because they don’t have the information or the empowerment to do anything about it. These children and parents are just feeling like victims; things happen, they don’t know why, the child ends up in hospital and they’re very distressed. It’s just one example of this horrible spiral of lack of public information and awareness, so in the true sense of marketing yes, that’s exactly what’s needed. The fire service spent just £2m in a year on national media and local initiatives and it worked. For some reason, for decades the public has been kept very ignorant about the benefits of dental prevention and the benefits of proactive dental care. Who wants to listen to a firefighter talk about prevention when their house is on fire – you’re not receptive in a distressing situation are you? This is the problem we have in dentistry.

Would you advise dentists starting out to avoid NHS dentistry?

At the moment the system is not fit for purpose but I would say rather than avoid it they need to change it. If the politicians won’t listen to our younger professionals, who are struggling to do the kind of prevention dentistry they’ve been taught for five years as the best in the world, the system must change or the profession must find a different way to deliver services to the public.

Are there similarities with the GP crisis?

GPs and dentists both want protected time to listen to patients, treat their immediate needs and give them prevention advice to improve their longer term health. Unfortunately the system is not focused on prevention and health, it’s focused on volume targets. They have to start focusing the system on the patient and that’s true of GPs, dentists and anything that is bespoke healthcare.


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