How the NHS access crisis is impacting oral cancer detection

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  Posted by: Dental Design      8th May 2024

In recent years, many patients have felt the impact of the NHS access crisis. Government figures report that at least 7 million fewer patients saw an NHS dentist, between 2020 and 2022, compared with pre-pandemic levels (2019).[i] Those who have returned to their dental practices have found it hard to receive the care they need. As highlighted by the BDA[ii] and the Oral Health Foundation[iii] in November last year, this crisis of access is having a significant impact on patients – particularly when it comes to the detection of oral cancer.

Mouth cancer new cases increasing

Oral cancer is responsible for more deaths in the UK than car accidents. Research suggests that, in 2021, oral cancer led to the death of 3,000 people – a rise of 46% on the previous decade.[iv] While some patients are considered to be at a high risk of oral cancer due to behaviours like smoking and excessive drinking, many patients who have HPV, for example, might not realise they are at risk – with symptoms going undetected until the disease reaches its later stages – especially if they have been unable to obtain a dental check-up. Data from the end of 2023 revealed that there were 9,860 cases of mouth cancer recorded in the UK in 2020/21. This is an increase of 12% on the previous year.[v]

Of course, raising awareness of the risks of tobacco, alcohol, and HPV is key for reducing the risk of oral cancer. Clinicians should offer cessation advice for patients who smoke and drink heavily, and should monitor these patients closely for unusual lesions. Patients with HPV may be unaware they are at higher risk for oral cancer, so recommending, to all patients, easy ways to check for the early signs is key for detecting it in stages I and II and beginning treatment quickly.

The importance of early detection

Regular dental check-ups present key opportunities for identifying oral cancer. In its early stages, many patients may not recognise the signs of mouth cancer, sometimes presenting similarly to a mouth ulcer. As such, they may not realise they need the attention of a medical professional. Dental clinicians play a key role here, picking up on anything out of the ordinary, monitoring changes closely, and referring patients whom they believe require further care.

Early detection is crucial for improving survival rates and ensuring that patients receive the best possible care. Research suggests that mouth cancer that is detected early results in a 90% survival rate, whereas delayed diagnosis has a 50% survival rate. With this in mind, it’s important to remember those people who have been unable to book regular dental appointments, who might unknowingly have the early signs of oral cancer.[vi]

The government’s NHS reforms: do they go far enough?

In February 2024, the government revealed its plans to reform NHS dentistry.[vii] It acknowledged the struggles that patients have had with accessing NHS dental services, and suggested a number of ways it plans to make improvements, and reach those who need care. Suggestions included supporting families to protect children, deploying mobile dental vans to areas with no NHS dental practices, and offering a “golden hello” to dentists who want to move to areas which struggle to attract NHS dentists.[viii]

While this is an important positive step, which takes into account the struggles of many patients, does it go far enough? Many professional dental bodies, along with dentists, find the reforms underwhelming – suggesting that they significantly under deliver.[ix] Some are concerned that the measures outlined in the government’s plan will not meet the current needs of the service, or ensure it is fit for the future.[x]

Effective mouth cancer monitoring

Considering this, how can clinicians ensure they are effectively checking patients for oral cancer at every appointment? The signs of oral cancer can be difficult to recognise, particularly in its early stages and if you’re not used to seeing them, so utilising additional pre-diagnostic tools can be very helpful.

The BeVigilant™ OraFusion™ System, available from Total TMJ, is ideal for performing a quick non-invasive test when you spot something unusual. If you notice a lesion, and would like to feel confident in your decision to refer them on, or monitor it in follow up appointments, the System analyses patients’ saliva for biomarkers related to oral cancer. Able to produce a result in 15 minutes or less, this is the ideal chairside partner for early oral cancer detection.

With immense pressure on the dental profession at the moment, it’s important to remember the key role clinicians play in their patients’ lives. Dental care is essential, and the ability to effectively monitor for the early signs of oral cancer may help to improve survival rates for the disease, and raise awareness for the condition.


For more details about the BeVigilant™ OraFusion™ System, visit the Total TMJ website, or email













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