Oral cancer is as prevalent as cervical and testicular cancer in the United Kingdom. Nursing staff provide the oral health care for the patient population in hospital. Admission to hospital provides a 'window of opportunity' for oral cancer 'screening' via an oral health check during nursing clerking. This study aimed to investigate whether nursing staff are aware of risk factors for oral cancer, its clinical signs, and could therefore provide a 'screening' service for oral cancer.
Through the use of a questionnaire we assessed 121 nursing staff on oral health check behaviour and attitudes; their knowledge of risk factors for oral cancer; their understanding of common clinical signs of oral cancer; and their undergraduate and postgraduate training in oral health and oral cancer.
Over 80% thought oral health checks were important although only 49% performed this task regularly; approximately 70% identified smoking as a risk factor but less than 30% identified alcohol. Awareness of the clinical signs of oral cancer was low with 21% identifying white patches, 15% identifying ulceration and only 2% identifying red patches despite their malignant potential. Nurses within 3 years of qualification were significantly better at recognising risk factors for oral cancer than their colleagues, identifying a need for continuing postgraduate education on oral health and oral cancer. Sixty-one percent of nursing staff received oral healthcare as an undergraduate with 34 percent receiving postgraduate training.
An oral health check upon admission to hospital provides an opportunity for nurses to 'screen' for oral diseases including oral cancer and allows nurses a greater role in total patient care. Nurses' awareness of oral cancer risk factors and clinical signs was, however, poor. This study highlights a need for improved education of nurses on oral cancer to make the oral health check on admission viable for oral cancer screening.