Britain can't fill need for dentists

State-funded system lacks practitioners, resulting in long lines and even self-service


ROCHDALE, England -- It is easy to be mean about British teeth.

Mike Myers' mouth is a joke in itself in the Austin Powers movies. In a Simpsons episode, dentalphobic children are shown The Big Book of British Smiles, cautionary photographs of hideously snaggletoothed Britons.

But the problem is serious: Britain's state-financed dental service has too few public dentists for too many people. At the beginning of the year, just 49 percent of the adults and 63 percent of the children in England and Wales were registered with public dentists.

Since moving to Rochdale, a working-class suburb of Manchester, William Kelly, 43, said he has been unable to find a National Health Service dentist willing to take him on. Every time he has tried to sign up, lining up with hundreds of others from the ranks of the desperate and the hurting - "I've seen people with bleeding gums where they've ripped their teeth out," he said grimly - he has arrived too late and missed the cutoff.

"You could argue that Britain has not seen lines like this since World War II," said Mark Pritchard, a member of Parliament for part of Shropshire, where the situation is similar.

Many dentists, discouraged by what they say is the assembly-line nature of the job and by a new contract that pays them to perform a set number of "units of dental activity" per year, are abandoning the National Health Service for private practice. Some 2,000 in April alone left the national service for private practice, the British Dental Association said.

The system, critics say, encourages state dentists to see too many patients in too short a time and to cut corners by, for instance, extracting teeth rather than performing root canals.

Some people seek treatment abroad. "I saw it on the Internet," said Josie Johnson, 42, of London, describing how she heard about a company called Vital Europe, which offers dental-and-vacation packages to Hungary. "It's a quite small country, and I thought they specialize in dentistry - so that's what I might do."

Others do it themselves.

Sales of dental emergency supplies, including materials that allow people to replace lost fillings, treat gum pain or reattach cracked crowns, are soaring.

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