COVID-19 – mouth cancer referrals fall by 33%

Mouth cancer referrals have fallen by one third since the start of the pandemic – sparking calls for urgent actionMouth cancer referrals have fallen by one 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.

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

Referral reductions

Additionally, six out of the seven NHS Trusts saw mouth cancer referrals slashed during this time. Two hospitals in Wales recorded a 47% drop in referrals – the biggest fall in the UK.

Northern Ireland saw the figure decrease by 36% since the beginning of the pandemic. Similarly, England and Scotland experienced drops of 31% and 30%, respectively.

The British Dental Association (BDA) estimates a backlog of more than 14 million after dental practices closed their doors in March.

As a result, Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation, encourages self-checks at home

‘Regular dental check-ups and GP appointments are the main routes for identifying the early stages of mouth cancer,’ he 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 allowing so many potential mouth cancers to go untreated, 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.’

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.

Dr Catherine Rutland, clinical director at Denplan, part of Simplyhealth, says it is vital that practices now remain open.

‘Dentists continue to play a vital role in identifying mouth cancer at routine check-ups,’ she says.

‘However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, access to dentistry was severely curtailed. Opportunities to catch mouth cancer early will have been missed. If mouth cancer is spotted 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.’

Figure 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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