18 Aug

Lack of dental appointments could lead to surge in undetected mouth cancer cases, experts warn

A lack of routine dental appointments could lead to a surge in undetected mouth cancer cases, experts have warned.

A recent investigation by the BBC found that 90% of UK dental practices are not accepting new adult NHS patients. Reports suggest that patients all over the country are struggling to access check-ups. Attending regular appointments is important to reduce the risk of decay and gum disease, but crucially, it’s also vital to detect early warning signs of mouth cancer. 

Statistics show that around half of mouth cancer cases are identified following routine checks performed by dentists. If patients are not able to get appointments, there is a real risk that thousands of people who have early signs of oral cancer will miss out on early diagnosis and treatment. Mouth cancer has become increasingly common in the UK, with case numbers increasing by around 50% in the last ten years. Early treatment can improve survival rates by up to 90%.

Dr Jane Wilcock, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners North-West Faculty, warned that missed dental appointments will mean that oral cancer cases go undetected. During a routine check-up, dentists carry out visual examinations, which can pick up abnormalities linked to mouth cancer, such as swelling, red or white patches in the mouth and slow-healing ulcers and sores. If people can’t access these checks, Dr Wilcock explained, there is a risk that they won’t be diagnosed until their symptoms are more advanced. At this stage, the chances of successful treatment are lower. 

In 2019, more than 8,722 new cases of mouth cancer were diagnosed in the UK. This represents a shocking increase of 97% in the last 20 years. Mouth cancer is most common in men and those who drink and smoke but it can affect anyone. 

Patients who notice changes in their mouth or experience symptoms, including lumps, difficulty swallowing, unexplained pain or bleeding, persistent hoarseness and a sore throat and mouth ulcers that take longer than 2 weeks to heal are encouraged to contact their dentist or GP to make an urgent appointment.