Three quarters of Northern Ireland's dental practices are at risk of collapse within the next three months, the British Dental Association (BDA) has warned.
Leaders in the sector are demanding rapid government intervention after a survey found that nearly one in every five local practices may go under within the next month.
With all routine care now suspended amid efforts to halt the spread of Covid-19, 75% of dental surgeries in Northern Ireland surveyed said they can only remain financially sustainable for up to three months.
The BDA survey captured the responses of nearly a quarter of all dental surgeries in the UK, the majority of which provide a mix of both NHS and private care. Practices in Northern Ireland performing a greater share of private work emerged as being the most exposed, with 76% of those with low or no NHS commitment (0-25%) stating that they will face imminent difficulties in the next three months.
This figure fell to 70.7% among those with the most NHS support.
Of the 116 local surgeries that responded to the survey, 17% have already attempted to seek a government-backed interruption loan.
Some 72% were unable to secure credit, with half of these already turning to commercial loans to stay afloat at reported interest rates of over 20%.
BDA chairman Mick Armstrong said the threat to local dental services has the potential to affect every part of Northern Ireland, explaining: "Practices across Northern Ireland are now weeks from a cliff edge, many saddling themselves with debt that they may never be able to repay.
"It was right to suspend all non-urgent care, but without meaningful support the nation's dental services face decimation and no practice can be excluded.
"Dentistry cannot weather this storm when nearly every surgery relies on private care to stay afloat.
"If officials let these vital services go to the wall, the impact will be felt by patients in every community in NI."
Dentistry leaders are calling for the extension of full business rates relief to all high street practices.
While those working for the NHS have been offered some government support, the BDA said the potential loss of private dental care will leave the remaining practices unable to meet patient demand.
According to the body, spending on private dental care has exceeded the UK-wide NHS dental budget every year since 2012.
Self-employed practitioners, particularly those in the private sector, are in desperate need of financial support from the Chancellor, the group warned.
Those earning anything above £50,000 are currently entirely excluded from financial support.