A Life-Saver - Self-Screening for Oral Cancer

September 16, 2015

Detecting the hidden killer

You may well have seen Dr Dawn Harper of Embarrassing Bodies fame launching the Mouth Cancer Foundation's new, life-saving initiative on Sky News Sunrise this morning. It is called 'Bite Back at Mouth Cancer' and its aim is to encourage and teach the public to screen them selves for oral cancer (http://www.mouthcancerfoundation.org/get-involved/bite-back-mouth-cancer). What a fantastic idea and one that every dental and medical practice should be promoting to their patients.

So why is self-screening so important? 

The list of reasons for self-screening goes on and on. However, the main ones are:-

  • The UK has seen a 60% increase in oral cancer since the 1970's and is affecting more and more young people.
  • More than half of oral cancer lesions have metastasised to other areas at the time of detection (BDA, 2011).
  • Earlier detection improves the 5 year survival rate from 50% to 90%.
  • There is currently no Government initiative to combat oral cancer.
  • NHS recall intervals in general dental practice are being stretched to over a year and much can happen in that time.

Oral cancer is no longer a disease that just affects smokers and the elderly. With the escalation in oral cancer across the UK and the raised public awareness that comes with it, patients are expecting their dentists and teams to thoroughly screen for the disease and do not have an issue with taking out legal proceedings if something is missed. Case law is establishing that a dental clinician’s duty of care is to screen thoroughly for oral cancer and that they have an obligation to opportunistically do so. The BDA reports that a typical complaint may ‘allege failure to recognise the possibility of a malignancy having noted swollen gums and loose teeth, for example, with a lack of evidence of adequate medical and social history-taking and delay in making a specialist referral’. Perhaps a self-screening initiative in general dental practice may offset the risk of being sued if patients are given equal responsibility to screen for oral cancer as the dental clinician themselves?!

Most importantly, education and awareness is key to saving lives. Dental professionals particularly are perfectly positioned to teach patients to self-screen for oral cancer. We have a professional obligation to do so now we have the tools to deliver. The Mouth Cancer Foundation has downloadable resources and self-screening leaflets that can be handed to every patient after an exam in practice. Take the initiative to bite back at oral cancer. Your patients will thank you with word of mouth referrals when they see that your practice is going the extra mile!