Rise in mouth cancer deaths ‘linked to shortage of NHS dentists’

Difficulties in accessing NHS dentists could have led to an increase in mouth cancer deaths, a health charity has warned.

The Oral Health Foundation said access to dentistry is in “tatters” as it warned that many people with the disease “will not receive a timely diagnosis”.

Mouth cancers led to the deaths of more than 3,000 people in the UK in 2021 – up 46% from 2,075 a decade ago, according to figures from the charity, shared with BBC News.

The British Dental Association (BDA) said nine in 10 people will survive oral cancer when it is caught early but this drops to a 50% survival rate when people are diagnosed late.

It warned that accessing care can mean life or death for some patients.

Oral Health Foundation chief executive Nigel Carter told BBC News that dental check-ups “are a key place for identifying the early stage of mouth cancer”.

“With access to NHS dentistry in tatters, we fear that many people with mouth cancer will not receive a timely diagnosis,” he told the broadcaster.

Dentistry is the second most common issue that people report to Healthwatch England.

The patient watchdog has said that access to care is the main issue reported.

Difficulties getting support have led to many people living in pain and, in some extreme cases, people resorting to DIY dentistry, Healthwatch said earlier this year.

Commenting on the figures, BDA chairman Eddie Crouch called on the Government to “meaningfully” restore NHS dentistry.

“Every dental check-up doubles as an oral cancer screening,” he said.

“When late detection can radically reduce your chances of survival, the access crisis millions face will inevitably cost lives.

“This condition causes more deaths than car accidents. With rates surging we need more than radio silence from Westminster.”

Louise Ansari, chief executive at Healthwatch England, said: “Dentistry continues to be one of the top issues people report to us across the country, with great swathes of the population unable to get help for urgent painful symptoms.

“We call on the Government to publish its dental recovery plan urgently.

“The longer we wait for Government action on dentistry, the longer people – including children – who need dental treatment will be left in pain.

“We are also very concerned that issues in NHS dentistry are contributing to widening health inequalities, with those who can’t afford private dental care or without health insurance not being able to afford timely care.

“Ultimately, the dental system needs fundamental reform to increase and attract more dentists, improve oral health from birth, reduce cost and improve access when required.

“People want to sign up with a local NHS dentist in the same way they register with a GP, knowing they’ll be there for them in the long term to prevent, treat and maintain their oral health.”

Asked on BBC Breakfast about the rise, Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay referred to the smokefree legislation set out in the King’s Speech on Tuesday which will stop children who are 14 or younger from ever legally being sold cigarettes in England.

“The answer is to stop people smoking rather than try and treat the consequence of cancers as a result of people smoking – it’s far better to prevent the cancer, than focus on how we better treat it,” he said.

“So we’re boosting the number of dentists and we’re looking at how we improve the contract. We have already made a number of changes.

“But the single biggest cause of preventable illness and death is smoking… not just in cancers but also in other health conditions like strokes, as well.

“So that’s why we’re focused – through the King’s Speech – in taking the long-term decisions to have a healthier future, to have a brighter future. Key to that is stopping the biggest single cause of preventable illness and death – that is smoking.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We are making progress to boost NHS dental services. Compared to the previous year, 1.7 million more adults and 800,000 more children are receiving NHS dental care and we have announced plans to increase dental training places by 40%.

“The NHS is also treating more people for cancer at an earlier stage than ever before, and we have opened 127 community diagnostic centres to speed up checks, including for cancer.”