The number of people reporting to hospitals with life-threatening dental abscesses has risen over the last eight years despite the fact that regular dental care may avoid such conditions, a new study has found.
According to researchers from the University of Bristol, their findings indicated "a major public health problem" and called for an urgent review of the dental system.
Dental abscesses, collections of pus, which have to be surgically, drained, are potentially deadly but can easily be prevented with regular visits to a dentist.
The study suggested that changes made to the way dentists were paid in the 1990s, which led many of them to cut down on their NHS workload, could be responsible for the increase in patients seeking emergency dental treatment.
This decrease in NHS dental placements was accompanied by a fall in the number of adults in England registered with an NHS dentist, from 23 million in 1994 to about 17 million in 2003/04.
"It is therefore possible that changes in service provision over the last 10 years have resulted in reductions in the provision of routine dental care and reduced access to emergency dental care and that these changes explain the rise in surgical admissions for dental abscess," the report said.
The analysis, conducted by Dr Steven Thomas, a maxillofacial surgeon, and his colleagues at the Department of Oral and Dental Science, looked at Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) data on all admissions to NHS hospitals in England for each year from 1998/99 to 2005/06.
This showed that while just 750 people were admitted to hospital for treatment on abscesses in 1998/9, that figure had rocketed by 2005/6 to 1,431 admissions.
"We believe that a doubling in a preventable condition that can have major consequences and that can even result in death constitutes a major public health problem that requires urgent action," the researchers said.
Dr Thomas said the research was prompted by three complex cases of dental abscess that presented over a six-month period in 2006.
The case studies highlighted the serious and potentially life-threatening consequences of dental abscesses. In two of the cases the patients needed to be admitted to a hospital critical-care unit; none of the three was registered with a dentist.
The study appears in the British Medical Journal.