The importance of opportunistic soft tissue screening was highlighted to me recently while working with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) Queensland Section’s Mobile Dental Unit (MDU).
During a western Queensland rotation, I had the pleasure of chatting to a patient about the general dental practitioner’s role in oral cancer screening.
She commented gratefully that the service is ‘more than just teeth’. What an appropriate conclusion.
The MDU has been on the road, servicing western Queensland communities, for more than 10 years.
Our team aims to deliver high-quality, comprehensive oral health care – with oral cancer screening as a vital part of our service. In Australia, the five-year relative survival rate from 2014 to 2018 for all oral cancers was 76 per cent, compared to 70 per cent for all other cancers combined.
The incidence of oral cancer is greater in rural communities than in cities due to several contributing factors, including increased prevalence of alcohol and tobacco use, prolonged sun exposure and reduced health literacy.
It’s no secret, however, that the greatest barrier to positive health outcomes is access to services outside the major cities.
This proves to be a challenge as, like almost all other health morbidities, the early detection of and intervention for oral cancer can lead to better physical, social, emotional and financial outcomes.
The RFDS MDU team has been able to fill some of the gap around easily accessible and affordable screening across the western Queensland communities we serve. Between 2013 and 2019, the RFDS dental service produced more than $15 million of economic and social benefits to patients.
Within the past 12 months, our team of experienced dental professionals have also delivered more than 160 referrals to appropriate medical and dental specialists, some of which include referrals for suspected or identified soft tissue pathology.
The statistical trend of dental treatment provided by the RFDS MDU has shown a projection towards diagnostic and preventive treatment, rather than emergency care, in several communities. A recent community-impact report evaluating treatment provided by the MDU shows the proportion of preventive services, in communities such as Cherbourg and Winton, increased from 72 per cent in 2016 to 80 per cent in 2022.
This highlights our successful commitment to equitable, long-term care for the rural patients on our regular western route.
Certainly, there will always be a need for emergency care. However, all of us working in various health disciplines can agree, ‘prevention is better than cure’.
As well as educating and equipping dental professionals to effectively screen for oral abnormalities, there are great opportunities to improve health outcomes for rural patients with the use of enhanced telehealth resources, such as reliable internet access, extra-oral radiographs and intra-oral cameras (all services provided on board the MDU).
Being able to access specialist dental care from remote locations requires further professional networking and development within our current MDU program.
Oral cancer can significantly affect a patient’s quantity and quality of life and accessible, affordable dental services that look beyond ‘just teeth’ underpin comprehensive rural health care.
The RFDS MDU is changing the face of equitable dentistry in Queensland, with plenty of room to expand.
Perhaps in addition to increasing the availability of these services, another challenge worth pursuing is educating all our patients to understand dental check-ups are about ‘more than just teeth’.
Not only should we be encouraging patients to see their dentist to keep their smile healthy, but also to potentially save their life.