Mouth Cancer Surges As NHS Access Dwindles

Mouth Cancer Surges As NHS Access Dwindles

The revelation that diagnoses of oral cancers are rising as access to an NHS dentist slides will come as no surprise to dental professionals.

The disease, which is the eighth most common cancer,  is responsible more deaths per year than road traffic accidents

Figures obtained by respected charity the Oral Health Foundation (OHF) reveal that in 2021 oral cancer claimed the lives of over 3000 people - a 46% rise from the 2075 recorded a decade previously. By way of contrast, 1695 people died on Britain’s roads in 2022, a drop of 3% over the previous year.

The OHF used a Freedom of Information request to elicit data from, amongst others, the Office for National Statistics, Public Health Wales, Scotland and the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry.

9860 people were diagnosed with the disease in 2020-21.  This figure represents a rise of 12% over the previous year according to the OHF.  Early detection enjoys a 90% survival rate but this drops to 50% when diagnosis is made as the disease has advanced.

Nigel Carter is the Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation.  Commenting on the figures he said dental check-ups were "a key place for identifying the early stage of mouth cancer.  With access to NHS dentistry in tatters, we fear that many people with mouth cancer will not receive a timely diagnosis."

Carter’s words were echoed by the British Dental Association’s Chair Eddie Crouch who was quoted on the BBC News website saying "Every dental check-up doubles as an oral-cancer screening" adding that the crisis millions of people face accessing dentists "will inevitably cost lives".

Predictably, government departmental spokespersons default to recently announced plans to increase dental training places by 40% and highlight that 1.7 million more adults were in receipt of NHS dental care between June 2021 and June 2023 compared to June 2020 and June 2022.  

Welcome though the figures are, in the context of the NHS access crisis and the surge in oral cancer, they border on the disingenuous.  

It could take a generation to increase the training capacity of our dental schools to boost places by 40%. And the uplift in patient numbers seeing a dentist has more to do with the management of Covid and lifting of pandemic inspired SOP’s than any government initiative to facilitate access.

In the meantime, it is incumbent on all health and especially dental professionals to promote mouth cancer awareness. Some messaging around smoking, alcohol intake and not chewing betel nut or paan is straightforward and easily conveyed.  

How to communicate that the Human Papilloma Virus, transmitted via oral sex, can cause cancers of the tongue, lips, gums and parts of the throat is going to require creative thought and sensitivity. 

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