Many dental surgeries do not routinely provide appointments within a week for patients suffering from symptoms of mouth cancer, a survey suggests.
The Facial Surgery Research Foundation, Saving Faces, telephoned almost 250 NHS dental surgeries in London. Almost a third of dental receptionists did not offer a prompt consultation when given common oral cancer symptoms. The Department of Health said urgent appointments should have been given in such cases.
Early diagnosis and treatment can increase a patient’s chances of survival from just below 50% to around 90%. Consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon Professor Iain Hutchison, who is chief executive of Saving Faces, says the situation must improve.
“The longer you leave the cancer the greater the likelihood of it spreading which means the chances of curing it are less.”
New dental contracts introduced in April 2006 were intended to increase access to NHS dentists. Charges were simplified and Primary Care Trusts were given the responsibility to allocate the amount of NHS work a dentist can do. But Professor Hutchison believes the new rules may be acting as a barrier to patients getting an emergency appointment.
In the survey, 6% of all the receptionists contacted told the researchers that the practice could not see any new NHS patients because they had used up the quota allocated by the PCT. Professor Hutchison said this is “a new phenomenon… and clearly an inappropriate response to someone who may have mouth cancer.”
Mouth cancer kills about 1,700 people in the UK every year. The most common symptoms include painless ulcers that do not heal, red and white patches and unusual changes in the mouth. Smokers and drinkers aged over 40 are particularly at risk.
For the survey, the researchers told dental receptionists they had been experiencing the symptoms for four weeks. The Department of Health said the “advice and guidance from the DoH is to give an urgent appointment” in such cases.
Professor Hutchison said his team undertook the research “to try to identify any potential source of delay in patients seeking treatment”, and that the results were “an improvement on similar research done in 1992 but not satisfactory.”