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Oral cancer survey from Case dental school shows dental hygienist’s role in catching cancer


In one of the first national surveys of dental hygienists about their knowledge and screening practices for oral cancers, researchers at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Dental Medicine found indications that while dental hygienists view screening for oral cancer an important component of their practice and possess comparable oral cancer knowledge with the general dentist in the private practice, they often do not carry out oral cancer screenings.

Oral cancer impacts people. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 28,900 people were diagnosed in 2002 with oral cancers and 7,400 people would died as result of their disease.

The overall five-year survival rate was 56 percent.

Early oral cancer is often asymptomatic and if not caught during its earlier stages, the chances of surviving the disease diminish significantly, according to Dr. Danny R. Sawyer, professor and chairman of Case’ department of oral diagnosis and radiology and assistant dean of didactic education.

He conducted the study along with Dr. Marsha Pyle, Case associate dean for dental curriculum; Meredith Bailey, a second-year Case dental student; and Maureen Vendemia, professor of dental hygiene from Youngstown State University.

The 25-question survey from Case was mailed to 2,000 randomly selected dental hygienists nationwide, with 575 individuals responding to questions about their oral cancer knowledge and oral cancer screening practices. The survey findings were presented at the 2004 annual research meeting of the American Dental Education Association and were compared to an oral cancer survey of dentists presented by the authors at the 2003 ADEA’s annual meeting.

Some of the findings from the dental hygienist survey were:
  • Most dental hygienists place a high level of importance on oral cancer screening, are trained to screen for the cancers and ae non-smokers themselves. However, only 53 percent do head and neck examinations on their patients.
  • The majority of the hygienists elect to do exams on patients because of their age and/or tobacco and alcohol use.
  • Most hygienists ask their patients about using tobacco products, but less than half ask about alcohol drinking habits, and less than half counsel patients about alcohol and tobacco use.
  • For hygienists, working in an office with a single dentist, 79 percent said they do not have tobacco cessation materials available to give to patients, yet a similar percentage felt it was important to have this information available. Dental hygienists that smoke were less likely to offer tobacco cessation materials than those who do not smoke.
  • When compared to the 2003 dentist survey, dental hygienists’ cancer knowledge that related to the cause, appearance of and risk factors related to oral cancer was comparable to that of the general dentist.

The Case surveys of dental hygienists and dentists coincide with American Dental Association efforts to raise awareness of oral cancer and increase cancer screenings by professionals in the dental field. Also the importance of the research findings will help Case rewrite the Case School of Dental Medicine’s dental curriculum, which is currently under revision as the dental school strives to train the dentist for the 21st century.

The research group encourages people to be proactive in their oral health care by suggesting that if an oral-cancer screening examination is not done with our routine dental care, then ask your dentist or dental hygienist to do one.

"After all, early diagnosis offers the best chance for cure," stressed Sawyer.

Susan Griffith | EurekAlert!
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