Collaboration is key to caring for cancer patients

Cancer patients have many challenges to contend with, and they may view oral health as a low priority, says dental hygienist Joss Harding. The best way to help them is to listen closely to what they say. Build a good collaboration with the medical team.

Listen to patients who have a cancer diagnosis, and adapt your approach to what they tell you. This was the strong message of dental hygienist Joss Harding, from Stroud, Glos. She has a particular interest and expertise in working with patients suffering from cancer.

Joss was speaking at Biomin’s expert panel discussion at the Oral Health Summit to mark Smile Month.

‘When patients receive a diagnosis, the anxiety it causes means that mouth care will probably go out of the window,’ she said.

Caring for cancer patients

Aside from the cancer itself, patients will face a huge variety of challenges to their oral health. Possibly including pre-existing problems such as decay, gum disease, dry mouth, halitosis and poor diet.

‘If dental health is not on their radar beforehand, it will not be on it after diagnosis,’ she warned.

Joss keeps a checklist of issues to consider, such as their dexterity, if they have a carer, their water intake, whether they are taking many drugs that might cause dry mouth, and many other questions that could affect the patient’s oral health.

‘The response is very patient specific,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s the same medication or type of cancer. There are so many variables.’

She stressed the importance of listening closely to what kind of patient they are and what they are telling you.

‘We know all about what we can do, and also what we can help them with. But do they want that?’ she said.

She likes to give her patients a goody bag to take home. ‘It makes them feel cared for, it gives them options. I also ask them to check with their oncologist that they are happy for them to use these products. It’s all about collaborating with the other team members who are working with these patients.’

Introducing Biomin

Joss gives her patients gentle reminders about their oral health before treatment if possible. Although she can’t usually see them during their treatment, she is often in touch with the ward staff and other professionals to offer advice, and to help look after them. ‘We need more interprofessional talk going on,’ she stressed.

She pointed out that clinicians needed to be aware of ethical issues when recommending products. Biomin fits well with that.

‘It’s nice to offer something that’s not tested on animals, contains no animal products and has a good evidence base,’ she said. ‘I therefore love Biomin, it’s an excellent option to offer.’

She welcomes the alternative of Biomin C for those patients who don’t want fluoride. ‘It’s useful to point them to a great product, a reliable and clinically proven option,’ she adds.

Patients who are eating a lot of fruit or drinking squash or fruit juice understand the science of Biomin when she explains it. ‘They want more samples. They also really enjoy using it and notice a reduction in their sensitivity, which is perfect.’

Listening to patients

She sees a part of her job as contributing to the patient’s quality of life, not just their oral health. ‘It’s all about communication and collaboration, team training, and so on,’ she said.

Joss stressed the importance of considering the patient’s family and loved ones. And having the information to point them to other sources of support, whether they are having financial difficulties, depression or difficulty sleeping. ‘It’s important to listen to that,’ she said.

‘We can clean their teeth, we can look after them. But it’s not always people’s priority,’ she explained. ‘When they are going through cancer treatment, I say to them: eat and drink everything, and we will look after your teeth.

‘When you come back to me, we will help you out and get you back on the right road. Our role is then to guide them – and if they don’t want to listen, that’s fine too.’

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