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June 2019

Professor Michael McCullough jpeg
Professor Michael McCullough

DHSV rolls out oral cancer screening

Dental Health Services Victoria is rolling out a program aimed at preventing and detecting oral cancer as early as possible.

The innovative screening and prevention program will see Victoria’s oral health professionals screen high-risk people in the community where treatment can be most effective.

University of Melbourne dental school’s Michael McCullough said increasing oral cancer prevention, screening and early detection was the way to reduce the impact of this disease.

‘Oral cancer is one of the leading causes of disease burden in Victoria with an average of more than 14 new diagnoses and three deaths a week,’ Professor McCullough said.

‘In its early stages, the disease can be difficult to detect by patients and clinicians and may remain undiagnosed until well advanced.

‘The prognosis may be poor, therefore, with low survival rates and severe health and economic impact for patients and their families.

‘With earlier diagnosis, a patient’s treatment and prognosis can be enormously improved.’

DHSV Chief Executive Officer Deborah Cole said there had been an increase in the number of oral cancer cases in Victoria.

‘From 2005 to 2017, the number of cases in Victoria has steadily increased by 42 per cent and that’s why we need to tackle signs of oral cancer as early as we can,’ Dr Cole said.

‘The incidence of throat cancer has more than doubled during this time and, more recently, human papillomavirus infection has been found to be linked with increasing incidence of throat cancer.’

Screening of patients by clinicians as part of a comprehensive examination is an important aspect in the early detection of oral cancer.

Currently, a comprehensive prevention and screening program, with clear referral pathways, is lacking in Australia.

To help reduce the impact of oral cancer on Victorians, a training program providing oral health professionals with the skills to detect early signs of oral cancer in their patients is in development and will be piloted this year.

The training program will include oral screening guidance, patient risk behaviour assessment information and pathways for referral.

‘Following completion of the pilot, the program will be offered to all Victorian oral health professionals and it is anticipated this will significantly decrease the number of late stage oral cancer diagnoses,’ said Professor McCullough.

‘The program will empower clinicians and their patients to discuss and reduce high cancer risk behaviours.’

The oral cancer screening and prevention program is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services under the Victorian Cancer Plan 2016/20.

The program is being led by DHSV in partnership with the University of Melbourne dental school, the Australian Dental Association (Victorian branch), La Trobe University’s department of dentistry and DHHS.