GPs handle 380,000 dental patients every year, study shows

Hundreds of thousands of GP appointments are being taken up by patients who would be better off seeking help from a dentist, a study has shown.

Thousands of patients visit GP with dental problems (Photo: iStock.com/torwai)
Thousands of patients visit GP with dental problems (Photo: iStock.com/torwai)

Approximately 380,000 GP appointments per year are being taken up by patients who are visiting their GP rather than a dentist when experiencing problems with their teeth or gums, research published today in the British Journal of General Practice has shown.

In response to the findings, the RCGP has urged patients to go elsewhere for dental treatment in a bid to free up valuable GP time.

Dr Steve Mowle, honorary treasurer at the RCGP, said: ‘While GPs are trained to deal with a multitude of health concerns, we are not trained to treat dental problems – they are best left to the care of a professional dentist or, if required, urgent care services.

‘With GPs already seeing more than 1m patients in the UK every day, and increasing number of patients waiting more than a week to see a GP, seeing patients with dental problems isn’t the best use of our time, and anyone who does try to book an appointment for a dental problem will most likely be referred to an appropriate alternative.’

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Should GPs treat patients presenting with dental problems?

GP burden

The study - which aimed to explore the reasons why patients may consult a GP rather than a dentist when experiencing dental issues - also found there to be ‘direct, indirect and opportunity costs associated with dental consultations, which place a burden on general practice’.

Common reasons behind patients’ decisions to visit their GP instead of a dentist included dental anxiety, dissatisfaction with previous dental care, and affordability. Patients’ interpretation of their symptoms and the comparative ease of navigating medical systems compared with dental ones were also contributing factors.

The study authors concluded: ‘There are several reasons why patients may consult a GP with a dental problem. Effective interventions will need to break down the barriers preventing access to dental care. Accessible public-facing information on where to seek care for dental problems is required, and general practice teams should be able to signpost patients who present with dental problems, if appropriate. Dental providers should also be encouraged to maintain timely access to urgent care for their patients.’

Signposting

Dr Mowle added: ‘The health service is struggling across the board at the moment, and we recognise that patients may struggle to get an NHS dental appointment, just as we know many are finding it difficult to get a GP appointment.

‘What’s essential is that patients understand where to turn when they need medical attention to access care most appropriate for their needs, and to ensure scant NHS resources are used most effectively.’

GPC executive team member Dr Krishna Kasaraneni said: 'GPs know all too well what the impact of patients struggling to find an NHS dentist as well as other factors can have and this study provides further evidence of the impact on hardworking GP practices. We have produced clear guidance for GPs about the importance of referring patients presenting with dental problems to dentists so that they can get the care they need.'

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