Healthy teeth and gums, and a mouth free from disease, are important to most people throughout their lives.
To help them to achieve this, most people expect to be able to access good quality NHS dental services at a reasonable cost.
However, while there is good access to NHS dentistry in some areas of the country, in other areas problems with access continue.
The Dental Access Programme was set up in January 2009 and ran to March 2011, and during this time the NHS achieved a two million increase in dental access for patients.
The British Dental Association (BDA) has warned that a great deal of hard work remains to be done to address issues facing NHS dental services in England. The warning comes after statistics published today by the NHS Information Centre showed that the number of people able to access NHS dental care has finally returned to the level it was at before the implementation of the 2006 reforms.
The figures show that 28,163,000 patients in England accessed NHS dental care in the 24 months ending 31 December 2009, compared to 28,145,000 in the 24 months ending 31 March 2006, the day before the implementation of the current arrangements for NHS dentistry in England.
Dr Susie Sanderson, Chair of the BDA's Executive Board said:
"This increase is long-awaited news for the patients who can now see an NHS dentist. Oral health is important to overall health and visiting a dentist regularly is a crucial part of keeping your mouth healthy.
"However, challenges remain. There are still people who would like to see an NHS dentist who cannot do so and primary care trusts have been charged with delivering access to these individuals by March 2011. The Department of Health must also look beyond those who seek access to reach out to those who need dental care but do not ask for it. Thirdly, the Steele Reform process must deliver a new preventive, patient-focused contract that helps dentists provide the care their patients deserve."
Despite the increase in the number of patients accessing NHS dentistry in England, the proportion of the population able to do so remains below the level it achieved in March 2006, according to today's figures. In March 2006 55.8 per cent of the population had visited a dentist in the previous 24 months. At the end of 2009 54.7 per cent had done so in the previous 24 months.