NHS Shetland has sought to soothe concerns among 5,000 islanders who are about to lose their dentist, pledging a solution to the crisis by September when Alan Owen ceases practising.
The organisation’s chief executive Ralph Roberts said the problem was being discussed “day in, day out” and he hoped answers would be known by the end of this month or early in July with a replacement service in place “by September or very shortly afterwards”.
People across the islands have begun receiving letters informing them they are being deregistered by the practice in Lerwick, which Mr Owen is required to do before retiring on 2nd September.
So far the Owens have not been able to find a buyer for their business, which is contracted to the NHS and run from a dental surgery in St Olaf Street leased from NHS Shetland. The practice has two other self-employed dentists plus a dental hygienist and dental nurses.
An accompanying letter has also been sent out by Mr Roberts informing Mr Owen’s patients that the board is working with the Owens to find an alternative way to provide ongoing routine dental care and promising to write again as soon as arrangements are made. For emergency treatment in the meantime they are advised to contact the Montfield clinic or NHS 24.
Speaking at yesterday’s meeting of Lerwick Community Council, Mr Roberts admitted that providing routine care to replace the Owens was proving difficult but three main options are being considered. These involve using other local dentists to operate the surgery, absorbing the patient list among the other Shetland dentists or attracting another independent dentist to establish a service in Shetland.
He told the meeting: “I am confident we will have a solution by September.”
He defended himself against allegations that NHS Shetland had thwarted the attempts of a Swedish couple to pursue their interest in buying the practice. Councillor Gussie Angus said it was important that Mr Roberts was aware of the rumours that his organisation had been “less than helpful”. He said people were anxious about the loss of their dentist and the seeming lack of urgency in replacing the Owens.
Councillor Jonathan Wills repeated the claim that the potential buyers had been willing until conversations took place with NHS Shetland. He also accused the board of treating Mr Owen “a bit miserably” after the sterling service he had continued to provide over the years despite his illness.
But Mr Roberts said the only party interested so far was not anymore “for a variety of reasons” including wanting to run a bigger surgery than was available to them.
He admitted that NHS plans to extend the Montfield surgery and lease out the six dental chairs to a new practice had now been shelved because there is no money.
He said the board was absolutely committed and would do everything it could to attract a replacement for Mr Owen. Grants are available running into six figures to help someone new set up a dental surgery and to take on the 5,000 patients on the list.
The message he wanted to get out was that there is a real opportunity for someone to come to Shetland to enjoy the lifestyle and start a good business. He said more choice of dentist was important and would be “really valuable to the community”.
Mr Angus said he would accept Mr Roberts’ assurance that a solution would be in place for when the Owens leave.
It emerged that one of the problems with the Owens’ practice is the lack of space in the St Olaf Street surgery. New hygiene rules coming into force in December next year require sterilisation of dental equipment to be done in a different room to dental work and the cramped nature of the building means the instruments might have to be sent to the Gilbert Bain Hospital for cleaning instead. That arrangement is unpopular with dentists, Mr Roberts said, because they would require several sets and they have an understandable dislike of sending their equipment off the premises.
At the moment Shetland has a registration rate among adults of around 64 per cent against a national target of 65 per cent, according to Mr Roberts. He said Shetland had come from a point where it had problems of access to now being on a par with the rest of Scotland, which was still far from satisfactory.
He was aware of the importance of the issue, having experienced the “horrendous” problems with access to dentistry in the Borders where he was in charge of the NHS board before coming to Shetland at the start of this year.
His own family is having problems getting signed up for dental care and he said he had tried joining the practice in Brae.