THOUSANDS of children across Cork are on waiting lists for routine dental screenings and hundreds more are awaiting treatment for issues while services have been curtailed for much of the past year, it has been revealed.
Some 7,000 sixth class children in Cork are waiting to be screened as part of the school dental programme with screening suspended until Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
Meanwhile, hundreds more are awaiting treatments such as extractions or comprehensive care.
The HSE explained that the school dental programme and waiting lists for children’s general anaesthetic services in Cork were affected by Covid-19 lockdowns.
Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that some 7,000 sixth class children are waiting for restrictions to be lifted so they can attend for routine screening.
Meanwhile, around 450 children are waiting on general anaesthetic appointments for possible extractions.
More than half of these children have been waiting for over six months while 75 have been waiting over a year for this service.
The information also revealed that around 130 children with additional needs are on waiting lists for “comprehensive care”.
Almost 60 of these have been waiting more than six months for this care while 24 have been waiting over a year.
The HSE explained that these waiting lists “were impacted by the pandemic with the suspension of the general anaesthetic service during periods of national lockdown”.
However, it added that this service has resumed in recent weeks.
The school dental programme, however, will not resume until restrictions are lifted, according to the HSE.
Cork dentist Dr John Seward agreed that Covid-19 and the redeployment of dental staff to the frontline has seen services curtailed over the past year or so; the situation, he says, has not been helped by historic underfunding.
As a result of curtailments, he said children are being left for months, possibly even years, without screening, routine treatment, and treatment for issues that could cause problems in the near future.
Dr Seward said: “I saw a patient recently whose child is being treated with braces and they haven’t been seen in a year, and the likelihood is they probably won’t be seen for another six months to a year.
“The problem is many dentists have been redeployed to testing and tracing and other departments, and hopefully as vaccinators in the near future. It is unfortunate but like every other area within the health service at the moment, we just have to take second place to Covid-19 at present,” he added.
Dr Seward said that the delays in accessing screening and treatment could see issues for children worsen in the coming months.
He explained that issues such as fillings, extractions, and possible infections will have deteriorated as services were curtailed at many times during the pandemic.
Dr Seward added that consecutive governments have failed to prioritise dental services for children and as a result of this, and the Covid-19 pandemic, children are being left without vital services.
“Everything is disimproving because of the backlog,” he said.
“It’s like everything with this government and previous governments — dentistry comes so far down the list in terms of prioritisation.”
The Irish Dental Association (IDA), which represents around 1,800 dental workers, explained that Covid-19 did have an impact on services, as some closed and staff were redeployed, contributing to growing waiting lists.
However, the trade union also claimed that community dental services have been under-resourced for many years, and that the Covid-19 pandemic made this lack of funding all the more evident.
“The community dental service which provides dental examinations, preventive and restorative treatment to school aged children as well as adults with additional needs has been under-resourced for many years,” said Dr Anne O’Neill, IDA president.
“In many community health areas of the country, targeted school assessments have been limited to fewer age ranges because of reductions in available resources.
“Access to dental treatment under general anaesthetic for children has long been associated with longer waiting periods,” she added.
“Unfortunately, the impact of Covid-19 on both services and staffing has resulted in even longer waiting times, and periodic suspension of the targeted assessment programmes
“The dental services nationally were reduced to an emergency programme only during the first lock down with significant restrictions on attendance for dental care.
“Dental staff around the country participated in the testing of Covid patients throughout 2020.”
Dr O’Neill explained that these reductions in regular service also created lists of patients who required additional care, delaying the resumption of the targeted school assessment programme.
“While resumption of the assessment programme is dependent on local resources, the increased waiting times are indicative of the direct impact of Covid-19 on services as we organise to reduce the footfall in buildings, conduct risk assessments with each patient prior to their attendance at the clinics, as well as staff availability,” she said.
Dr O’Neill added that the recent third wave of Covid-19 has had a direct impact on non-emergency hospital attendances, which includes dental treatments and surgeries that require theatre work and recovery.
“Children who require dental treatment under general anaesthetic need access to the theatres and recovery staff who have been redeployed to managing Covid patients in hospital settings,” she said.
“In many parts of the country, access to dental treatment under general anaesthetic is not yet available due to the high numbers of Covid patients requiring hospital care,” she added.
The HSE was contacted for comment.