Over 100,000 children ‘denied’ school dental screening appointments last year

Primary schoolchildren should be seen by a dentist in 2nd, 4th and 6th class under the HSE school screening dental service

More than 100,000 children were denied essential school screening dental appointments in 2023 which could lead to “irreparable harm”, according to the Irish Dental Association.

The association said public dental services are suffering from a “worsening crisis” due to shortage of dentists and require immediate resources.

Primary schoolchildren should be seen by a dentist in 2nd, 4th and 6th class under the HSE school screening dental service, however, just over half (104,488) of the 208,233 eligible children were assessed by a public dentist last year.

“The school screening service is essential to preventive dental care for children and all those missed appointments mean huge numbers of children will suffer irreparable harm to their oral health,” the association said.


Children being denied check-ups is solely down to a shortage of public dentists which is creating a growing backlog in the numbers of children awaiting their first appointment, it said.

The association added that this backlog is leading to some children not being seen for the first time until they reach secondary school, “if at all.”

The number of children being screened annually has been decreasing significantly in the past 5 years, the association said, with over 151,392 schoolchildren being assessed in 2019.

This figure fell to 104,488 children being assessed in 2023, representing a 31 per cent reduction despite a 7.3 per cent increase in population.

It comes as the number of dentists working within the public service has decreased by 24 per cent since 2006, from 330 to 251 whole-time-equivalents (WTEs) in 2023.

The association said the Government continued to have a “blind spot” concerning oral health services, which it said was highlighted by the numbers hired into the HSE dental services compared to the wider health service.

“A Department of Health report shows that the workforce population of public dentists declined by 23 per cent between 2006 and 2022 compared with a 52 per cent increase in non-consultant hospital doctors, a 43.5 per cent increase in consultants, a 37.2 per cent increase in HSE admin staff and a 20 per cent increase in nursing staff between 2012 and 2022,” the association said.

Fintan Hourihan, chief executive of the Irish Dental Association, said the HSE was failing in its duty to provide adequate care to patients under the Health Act.

“There is huge uncertainty over the service as the Government appears to be suggesting that children should be seen by private dentists, 90 per cent of whom say the priority should in fact be on rebuilding the public dental service.”

Mr Hourihan said this “political uncertainty” is causing more difficulty to recruit into the public dental service adding that a pledge to increase HSE recruitment of dentists as a priority was needed from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty raised the issue in the Dáil on Thursday and said the HSE had been clear that it could not appoint any dentists below consultant level because of the recruitment embargo.

Describing the embargo as “ludicrous”, Mr Doherty said it meant the Government was putting pressure on the system. The screening programme had also “collapsed” because of a 50 per cent drop in the number of public dentists in place, with a current shortage of 500.

The Government is “preventing our health service to recruit staff to treat our children so one in two of them go without what they are entitled to” and it was “punishing” families who could not afford private care.

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue, standing in for the Tánaiste, said the Government invested €200 million annually in oral healthcare and this was targeted at those most in need.  It included an additional €15 million in core funding to help the national health policy “Smile agus Sláinte” and an extra €17 million in one-off funding to address service backlogs.

He added the HSE is developing oral healthcare packages for children from birth to seven years of age with €4.7 million in the Budget for that. There was also additional investment to address orthodontic waiting lists and prioritising those waiting the longest. In 2023 more than 2,000 patients were removed from the orthodontic waiting list and €3.3 million was being invested this year for orthodontic lists, he said.

Jack White

Jack White

Jack White is a reporter for The Irish Times

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times