PATIENTS in Halton will be among the first to gain better access into emergency dental treatment under new contracts.
The majority of dentists in Runcorn and Widnes are hailing the latest raft of Government reforms, and have agreed to be among the first to fast-track both registered and unregistered patients into more modern dental care.
It is hoped the shake-up will slash the number of people in the borough currently suffering from tooth decay, while placing the emphasis on preventing dental diseases.
The plans have been unveiled as part of the National Audit office report, called Reforming NHS Dentistry, but are unlikely to come into effect elsewhere in the country until October next year.
The delay is partly due to speculation by dentists that the new reforms could lead to a reduction in the level of dental care carried out by NHS dentists - leading just one practice in Halton to opt out of the move.
However, under the new system, dentists will apparently be able to tailor the service more effectively to an individual's needs.
Keith Milsom, the consultant in dental public health for Halton Primary Care Trust, said: 'Under the new contracts, we will be able to offer a much more high-quality service of dental care to patients - and the main thing is that 16 out of 17 of the dental practices are in favour of the new contracts in Halton.
'Although there will also be small increases in waiting times, a questionnaire has been circulated and the majority of patients are happy with the change and the way the service is being delivered.'
The contracts are being monitored by senior representatives of the dental profession - and are considered necessary in Halton because the state of dental health in the North West is worse than anywhere else in the country.
However, although there is a strong national consensus that NHS dentistry needs to be modernised - significant risks will have to be managed if the new arrangements are to be effective and provide value for money according to the National Audit Office.
Although symptomatic of the need for better funding in dentistry, the Government is still not planning to lower the overall cost of dental care and hopes to continue recouping £500m a year.
Instead, a team led by Harry Cayton - who is the Department of Health's director of patients and the public for dentistry - are working on a new banding system which will determine a set rate of pay for dental treatment.
Said Mr Milsom: 'The banding system won't be means tested, but it will be a better system for patients as it will put more structure in place and give them more of an idea about how much they are likely to pay.
'At the moment, it can vary per year but using this system an annual fee can be paid according to which band you're in for that year.
'There's a lot of speculation around what these bands will mean, and it won't become clear until next year but there are a lot of changes taking place.'