Dentists unclear about costs and treatment options, finds Which?Our research reveals price and treatment confusion

19 January 2015

A Which? undercover investigation has found that people could be paying more than they need to for treatment because some dentists aren’t explaining dental prices upfront, or being clear about what NHS treatment patients are entitled to.

We sent undercover researchers as NHS patients into the dentist's chair in 25 dental practices offering both NHS and private dental care. 

When an expert panel assessed their hidden recordings, eight of the 25 dentists were rated poor or very poor for explaining prices, and the same number poor or very poor for explaining treatment options. 

For advice on what you should expect to pay on the NHS and privately for your dental care, see our full guide to dental charges. We've also got advice on how to get the best from your dentist.

Private and NHS dental charges

Our undercover visits showed that dentists were weakest at explaining NHS and private treatment options, with nearly half of our mystery-shopping visits (12 out of 25) rated poor or very poor.

If your dentist provides both NHS and private services, they should begin by explaining what NHS options are available. You may also be given a range of private options, for example, to enhance the final cosmetic result, or for treatments not funded on the NHS, such as dental implants.

But we found a ‘muddled middle’ where the difference between NHS and private options needs to be clearer. On four of our undercover visits, our researchers, who should have been offered an NHS scale and polish and advice on looking after their teeth and gums, were only offered a private hygienist appointment. 

We found a ‘muddled middle’ where the difference between NHS and private options needs to be clearer.

Dental charges not explained

Though dental practices are contractually required to display a price list, only half of our undercover researchers saw one prominently displayed, with the majority of practices not showing any private prices.  This makes it difficult for people to compare costs between practices, as well as between NHS and private treatments.

It is also a legal requirement for patients offered band 2 or 3 NHS dental treatment - such as fillings or root canal treatment - to be given a written treatment plans. On our undercover visits, fewer than half (eight out of 20) of those eligible were given a treatment plan after their visit to the dentist.

One of our expert panel said of one mystery-shopping visit: ‘The treatment plan was vague and gave the patient no idea whether she would be paying band 1, 2 or 3 – which ranges from £18.50 to £219.’

Our full dentistry investigation appears in the February 2015 issue of Which? magazine. If you're not already a Which? member, you can sign up for a £1 trial to Which? to get full online access and to receive Which? magazine through the post.

Clean Up Dental Costs campaign

Our Clean Up Dental Costs campaign is calling on NHS England and regulators to:

  • make sure all dentists comply with existing rules and make information on prices clearly available
  • explain the dental treatment options properly
  • make sure patients know whether or not their treatment is available on the NHS.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: 'A visit to the dentist is an essential health check for millions of people across the country. Most of us will need dental treatment throughout our lives and it’s important that when that happens people feel clear about the nature of the treatment and what it will cost upfront. 

'We are calling on the NHS and the regulators to clean up dental costs and make sure the existing rules are put into practice consistently.'

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