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‘Newham has really high needs’ — Stratford dentist discusses impact of coronavirus on public’s teeth

PUBLISHED: 17:00 05 May 2020 | UPDATED: 14:49 06 May 2020

A stock image of the East Village Dental Practice in Stratford, where Sam Shah is a practitioner. Picture: East Village Dental Practice

A stock image of the East Village Dental Practice in Stratford, where Sam Shah is a practitioner. Picture: East Village Dental Practice

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The pressure coronavirus has placed on healthcare is well-documented, with service provision entirely restructured to accommodate the pandemic.

An external image of the East Village Dental Practice in Stratford, one of two emergency services in Newham that have been allowed to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: East Village Dental PracticeAn external image of the East Village Dental Practice in Stratford, one of two emergency services in Newham that have been allowed to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: East Village Dental Practice

One such area is dentistry, as most practices have had to close for safety reasons, leaving only emergency care practices in their place.

This change has left Newham with just two such practices, which according to Sam Shah, clinical lead at East Village Dental, isn’t enough.

He said: “Newham has some of the highest rates of tooth decay and extraction in children across the country. As an area, Newham has really high needs.”

Though there is no dispute that protecting the public from coronavirus is the top priority, he is concerned that such a reduced number of dental practices will both jeopardise oral health and the future of the industry itself.

Sam – who was named the Financial Times 4th most influential BAME tech leader in 2019 – says that such limited access to dental care “risks the worsening of health inequalities”, in an area that already struggles with deprivation.

He offers the example of children at home during lockdown, who may not be eating as well or may have limited nutritional choices.

The very real fear is that they will return to school with poor dental health, and that the recovering dental industry will have to absorb a swollen demand.

The best response to this risk is to be proactive, says Sam: “After Covid-19 we need to reach out to schools and find other ways to protect our population.”

Giving Newham two emergency care practices is an acknowledgment of the “degree of need” in the area, he adds.

The allocation has been justified. Across two sites, one in Stratford and the other in north London, Sam estimates that they are seeing up to 450 patients a week during this period.

Whatever the current level of demand, the Digital Leaders 100 finalist says it will ratchet up in the Covid-19 aftermath, but fears there will be fewer practices left to manage this.

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As Sam explains: “Most practices provide a mixture of NHS and private services, the latter of which subsidises the former.

“If private clients can’t go to the dentist now, or can’t afford to go in the future, this will have an adverse effect on the viability of practices.”

Losing this “very important” mixed economy is one consideration. Another is a perceived lack of state help for dentists, the majority of whom are self-employed but ineligible for the income support scheme due to posting yearly profits of over £50,000.

Though such earnings are considered comfortable by many, being left without any assistance for months on end is potentially fatal, according to Sam: “Many of those practices may not exist after Covid.”

Other issues are that council rent relief schemes don’t apply to healthcare buildings, as well as the fact that dental practices are now unlikely to get much-needed refurbishment work.

The response to Sam’s health-based concerns has varied. Policy from Public Health England has been “mixed and confusing”, he says, but the NHS London regional team has been very proactive in monitoring services properly.

There is an ongoing issue with NHS England, which oversees emergency care practices.

Sam gave the example of a man from Swindon who contacted his Newham practice due to having no services nearby.

He is ethically bound not to turn people away, nor does he want to, but is wary of the impact this could have on local people in need.

Sam is clearly well-positioned to speak on how this virus will affect dental care in east London.

He trained at the Royal London Hospital, has worked in public health across Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney and the City of London, and has been practising in Newham since 2016.

Ultimately an area with Newham’s level of need cannot afford to be starved of vital services for a lengthy period.

All concerned must be ready to face the challenges posed by a virus that has impacted every aspect of dentistry, from oral health to the preservation of practices and jobs.

Sam is clear: “We need to come together and devise a plan in order to prevent another type of crisis.”


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