02 November 2020

Supporting dental professionals with oral cancer prevention and screening

Oral cancer is on the rise in Victoria, with an average of 14 new cases and five deaths a week. With reduced access to dental care throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in Victoria, and other factors that may prevent patients from seeking health care, oral cancer prevention and screening is more important than ever.

Last year, 15 community dental agencies and two private dental practices, along with staff at Royal Dental Hospital of Melbourne (RDHM), took part in oral cancer screening and prevention training as part of a pilot program led by Dental Health Services Victoria (DHSV).

The importance of detecting oral cancer early is highlighted in the new Victorian Cancer Plan 2020–2024 (Plan). The Plan outlines continued support for the Victorian Oral Cancer Screening and Prevention Program from government, and includes a case study highlighting progress to date. This is important recognition for the vital role of oral health professionals in preventing and detecting oral cancer, and will ultimately reduce the impact of the disease on Victorians.

Positive experiences of the training

The evaluation of the pilot program found that the training session improved participants’ knowledge, understanding and practice relating to oral cancer prevention, screening, record-keeping and referral.  

Application of learning

Following training, participants felt more confident to talk to with patients about tobacco use. Barriers to screening considered quite high pre-training – including lack of knowledge about pre-malignant lesions, appropriate equipment, clear referral pathways and clinical guidelines – all decreased. Participants reported improved understanding of oral pathology and increased confidence to screen for oral cancer, identify suspicious lesions, seek second opinions and refer. Interviewees also mentioned improved record-keeping and using the DSLR camera more often.

Post-training referrals

There was a 25 per cent increase in referrals to the RDHM oral medicine and oral surgery unit from agencies participating in the pilot in the seven months after training, compared with the same period the year before.

Challenges and opportunities

Participants reported that talking to patients about oral cancer, HPV and alcohol can be challenging. With HPV linked to rising oropharyngeal cancer rates and alcohol consumption increasing during the pandemic, it’s important that oral health professionals are supported with this. Participants also wanted to use the DSLR camera more, identify a comprehensive range of lesions and improve referrals. Participants said that opportunities for interaction and knowledge sharing are important, and that training should be appropriate for the whole dental team.

What’s next?

DHSV is leading an ongoing program of evidence-based training and information that will draw on insights from the pilot and be made available to oral health professionals across Victoria. There is a plan to partner with tertiary institutions and peak bodies, and engage with GPs, recognising that patients will often present to their doctor with oral symptoms.

Want to find out more, share experiences or get involved?

Contact Kym Lang at kym.lang@dhsv.org.au and follow progress at www.dhsv.org.au/oral-health-programs/oral-cancer-screening-and-prevention.

To learn more about oral cancer screening and prevention, see the brief presentation at the 2020 DHSV Public Oral Health Innovations Conference, starting at 2:49:55 in the video. 

The presentation was delivered by Professor Michael McCullough, oral medicine specialist from the University of Melbourne on behalf of the Oral Cancer Screening and Prevention Program.

The Oral Cancer Screening and Prevention Program is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services as an initiative under the current Victorian Cancer Plan. The program is led by Dental Health Services Victoria, in partnership with the University of Melbourne Dental School, the Australian Dental Association Victorian Branch, La Trobe University Department of Dentistry and the Department of Health and Human Services.