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Using Technology for Early Oral Cancer Detection

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Let me challenge you: If I ask 8 patients on your schedule today, "What risk factors, symptoms, and technology are available for diagnosing oral cancer early?" What would they say?

Their answers may surprise you! The American Dental Association states that out of the 60% of patients who routinely visit dentists, approximately 15% of patients report their dentist or dental hygienist routinely performs an oral cancer screening on them.

Wow...This low percentage certainly couldn't happen on my watch! I set out to prove this stat wrong. After all, I perform a visual oral cancer screening on each patient I see. It wasn't until I began communicating the risk factors, symptoms, and technology available that my patients said they had no idea and didn't think we screen for oral cancer.

So where do you begin?

Get the facts, start the conversation, and invest in screening technology.

When introducing new screening for your patients, begin by sharing the facts. This opens up your conversation to inform them of symptoms they can experience and how the technology you will use can contribute to a healthy life.

Here are 6 facts and symptoms to share with your patients and team:

  1. Approximately 40,000 people in the US will be newly diagnosed with oral cancer in 2012. 
  2. This is the 5th year in a row that there has been an increase in the rate of occurrence.
  3. Smoking and alcohol are THE 2 most distinctive risk factors. History of using either of these?whether alone or combined?determines a person's level of risk.
  4. The third risk factor is exposure to HPV-16. This is more commonly identified by the virus associated with cervical cancer. It is also transmitted through oral sex.
  5. When diagnosed early (stage 1 or stage 2), oral cancer has an 80-90% survival rate.
  6. Advanced stages 3 and 4 are not as promising. Survival rate is 50% at 5 years from diagnosis.

There are several symptoms associated with oral cancer:

  • A sore or lesion in the mouth that does not heal within 2 weeks
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
  • A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable (Source:

As for technology, here are some suggestions to consider for your practice. These non-invasive options are superior to our prior visual technique:

  • VELscope is swift, user friendly, and FDA approved. It discovers soft tissue abnormalities using fluorescence.
  • Identifi 3000 uses 3 types of wavelength to distinguish soft tissue changes.

With an average of 2 minutes per exam, you still have plenty of time in your appointment to continue with other oral health screenings.

It is important to effectively communicate with your patients that this technology's key purpose is to detect tissue changes early, not to diagnose. Remind patients that diagnosis is only confirmed via biopsy.

With oral cancer screening devices, we have an opportunity to uncover what lies beneath our soft tissue in early phases, which can save someone's life.

Anastasia challenges dental professionals to continually raise the standard of patient care. She is an author in several dental industry publications and is published as an oral health source for numerous online consumer-based sites. Her weekly video blog on YouTube; Anastasia's Hump Day Happenings answers questions from the general public on oral health topics. Anastasia is a spokesperson, independent consultant, working with several companies to develop website content, social media presence, continuing education programs and in-office training for dental hygiene departments on product integration with team communication.

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