Could restricted access to dental care lead to claims?

A recent article in The Telegraph has highlighted the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the dental health of children.

NHS figures reveal that the number of children having dental check-ups fell by 50 per cent during the first year of the pandemic. In total, the number of under 15s who saw a dentist fell from 5.8 million to 2.9 million.

It is, however, the youngest age groups which have been impacted the most. Whilst there were 1.2 million dentists’ appointments for under 5s in 2019, only 468,000 appointments were arranged for 2020, a 60% fall. The article suggests that only 1 in 7 children under the age of 5 saw a dentist in 2020 compared to 1 in 3 during 2019.

Tooth decay was already the most common reason for children aged five to nine to be admitted to hospital with many needing dental surgery under general anaesthetic.

During the first lockdown, the majority of routine dental care stopped for around three months which understandably caused a backlog of patients of all ages waiting for appointments. Since then, while dental surgeries have reopened, infection control protocols due to the ongoing pandemic have resulted in dentists seeing lower numbers of patients.

An NHS spokesperson said: “Dentists have been prioritising treatment for children and patients in urgent need, in part through the rapid establishment of 600 urgent dental centres across England – with millions of people getting the care they need throughout the pandemic.

“Services are open and have been back at pre-pandemic levels since December and anyone with concerns about their dental health should contact their local dentist as they usually would or seek advice from NHS 111.”

A rise in claims?

There is clearly the potential for a rise in claims raising allegations of failings in detecting the early signs of tooth decay in children or delays in treatment causing unnecessary pain and/or loss.

As those claims would relate to the treatment of children, the three year primary limitation period to commence a claim before the court does not start apply until the patient reaches the age of 18. There is the potential therefore for claims relating to allegedly negligent treatment to be pursued long after the treatment in question.

Some personal injury firms that act for claimants are calling for dentists to move to claims made insurance for their dental defence cover and away from the more traditional discretionary claims occurring based dental indemnity. With claims brought in respect of children’s dental care potentially having a long lead time before they need to be started before the court, there is the need for practitioners to consider retroactive cover if a claims made insurance is to be purchased.

In respect of any claims made concerning delay in treatment during the initial lockdown which closed dental practices and the subsequent impact that less access to aerosol generating treatments have had for patients, we envisage an increase in patient complaints potentially leading to claims due to lack of access to dental care and the adverse effect this will have had on a patient’s ability to receive treatment and resolve their pain. The reasonableness and length of any delayed treatment would be dependent upon the circumstances in play at the time.


David Hallsworth, Solicitor, BLM
david.hallsworth@blmlaw.com

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