A new study by the British Dental Association (BDA) has found that children who need a general anaesthetic to have decayed teeth removed miss at least five days of school and can take a week to recover from the surgery – with children from low income families more likely to be admitted to hospital for tooth extractions.
The paper Exploring the potential of using data on dental extractions under general anaesthesia to monitor the impact of dental decay in children underlines the case for government action, says the BDA.
The research points out that school age children from the poorest backgrounds are up to three times more likely than their better off peers to be admitted to hospital for an extraction – and the research indicates that greater school absences in this group may lead to lower achievement in Key Stage 2 examinations (for children aged 10-11 years).
The study authors highlight that severe tooth decay is the single biggest cause of hospital admission in England for the under-5s, with the poorest being five times more likely to be admitted.
Dental disease is also not confined to toothache, infection and tooth loss – but can also affect children's eating and speech development.
The report says that a general anaesthetic for tooth extraction causes distress to both youngsters and their parents – and has significant costs in terms of days off work and lost productivity, as parents have to take time off to care for their children.
Treating dental disease in England costs the NHS £3.4 billion a year – in 2016, around £35 million of that was spent on hospital-based tooth extractions for children aged 18 years and under.
In Southampton, the authors estimate that a general anaesthetic for extracting decayed teeth accounted for around 1,510 missed schooldays in 2014-2015, with 500 missed days in children from the poorest backgrounds, compared with 165 in the least deprived areas.
This cost the local NHS £210,511, but excludes the wider economic cost to the city.
The British Dental Association has been calling on all parties to deliver a national preventive programme in England to address these inequalities, modelled on successes in devolved nations.
Data from Public Health England show a child born in Blackburn is nearly seven times more likely to experience tooth decay than one born in Surrey.
BDA Chair, Mick Armstrong, said:
“This study is not just a stark reminder of the huge personal cost that dental disease has for children and their families – but that the burden is disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society.
“This is a national scandal and our political leaders must pay heed – why are we spending billions every year to treat bad teeth when we ought to be investing in prevention?
“The next government must not sit on its hands – dental disease is almost always preventable and if Ministers are genuinely interested in reducing the need for hospital admissions, they must ensure that every community has the tools they need to make a difference.”
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