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Helsinki dental services 'breaking the law' as thousands await callbacks

The delay in response-time from dental care providers is against Finnish law, which guarantees a return call within a day.

Potilasta hoidetaan hammaslääkärissä.
Dental appointments are hard to come by in Helsinki. Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

Calls to schedule dental appointments in the capital area are currently going unanswered, with customers at present waiting several weeks for a callback on their appointment and the maximum delay taking up to a month.

This is a violation of Finnish law, which establishes that a return call for non-emergency dental care should take place on the same day that the client has contacted their dental care provider.

"I am very sorry that we are not able to serve the people of Helsinki as we should," says Sebastian Kaste, director of oral health care services at the City of Helsinki.

An estimated 10,000 clients are currently waiting for a return call regarding dental care appointments in the Helsinki area. Access to non-emergency care takes about three months and, according to Kaste, using a service voucher for the private sector will provide customers with treatment a little faster.

"This is bad customer service. By no means do we want our situation to look like this," Kaste said.

Dental hygienist shortage in the public sector

According to Kaste, the appointment backlog began in January and deteriorated during the spring.

Gradually, calling the customer back was pushed forward to the days that followed their appointment request, instead of on the same day. In April, the wait-time for return calls had stretched to weeks.

The problem is a shortage of dental hygienists, especially for the appointment service, Kaste says.

A healthcare professional is needed to answer the calls because an assessment is performed at the time the appointment is made. According to Kaste, there is a shortage of these professionals throughout the country.

"There have been recruitment attempts with zero applicants," he says.

The staff shortage is, in part, due a large number of staff on sick leave. Technical problems have also lengthened dental care queues in Helsinki.

Additionally, logjams emerged from the so-called "care debt" stemming from Covid-19. About 130,000 necessary dental visits were missed in Helsinki last year, due to the pandemic. This accounts for about 20-25 percent of all dental visits.

According to Kaste, dissolving this "care debt" will stretch into the new year.

Employees from private sector hired to alleviate pressure

The broader use of electronic services, which are to be introduced later in the autumn, is expected to bring some relief to the appointments issue. Through the new Maisa-application, it will be possible to book a time for children's dental check-ups as well as other appointments. This is expected to reduce phone congestion.

"We created a phone line just for orthodontics. The Youth Council was active in the matter and took the initiative. The line has improved the availability of orthodontics appointments over the phone," Kaste said.

In September, Helsinki will also be getting help from a private company in the scheduling of dental care. Employees of the partner company will answer calls for services in the public sector in order to relieve the blockage.

"Price comparisons have been completed and the collaboration with the partner service should start on 1 September. But a request for rectification has been made, so let's see if the start is delayed by a few weeks," said Kaste.

A worsening Covid situation may also make it more difficult to relieve the congestion within dental care.

As infection numbers increase, some dental appointments may need to be postponed as staff might be temporarily assigned to other tasks. For example, this week ten employees were transferred from dental care to infection tracing, says Kaste.

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