checking for mouth cancerMouth cancer referrals have fallen by a third since the start of the pandemic – sparking calls for urgent action.

New data from the Oral Health Foundation shows that oral cancer referrals have dropped by 33% since COVID-19 hit the UK.

Now, the charity is calling for quick action surrounding cancer diagnosis.

Referral reductions

The data collection involved seven NHS Trust Hospitals across the UK. It reveals the number of patients referred for possible oral cancer fell from 2,257 in the six months before March 2020, to 1,506 in the six months after March 2020.

Additionally, six out of the seven NHS Trusts saw mouth cancer referrals slashed during this time.

Scotland in particular experienced a 30% drop in mouth cancer referrals.

The British Dental Association (BDA) estimates a backlog of more than 14 million.

‘Regular dental check-ups and GP appointments are the main routes for identifying the early stages of mouth cancer,’ Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation, says.

‘We fear that without access to dental and wider health professionals, that many mouth cancer cases will go undiagnosed.

‘A person’s quality of life after being treated for mouth cancer, as well as their chances of beating the disease, is highly dependent on the time of diagnosis. By not treating so many potential mouth cancers, there is a real danger of more people losing their life to the disease.

‘While dental and GP visits remain disrupted it is important that everybody knows how to check themselves for mouth cancer.’

Mouth cancer warning signs

Further research by the charity reveals more than half (56%) of UK adults report postponing or cancelling a dental visit.

And during the same period, one in six (16%) experienced at least one potential early warning sign of the disease.

‘Dentists continue to play a vital role in identifying mouth cancer at routine check-ups,’ Dr Catherine Rutland, clinical director at Denplan, part of Simplyhealth, says.

‘However, the COVID-19 pandemic severely curtailed access to dentistry. Opportunities to catch mouth cancer early will have been missed. If we spot oral cancer early, the chances of a complete cure are good.

‘The Foundation’s recent research has revealed that nearly four in 10 people reported encountering an issue and being unable to see or get advice from their dentist. This is due to the current limited access to dentistry caused by the pandemic.’

She adds: ‘Keeping practices open from now on is vitally important to help ensure the early detection of mouth cancer. It could save thousands of lives.’

Figures show an oral cancer diagnosis rate of 8,722 in the UK last year. Marking an increase of 97% since 2000.

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