Oral health programs

Oral cancer screening and prevention


Oral cancer is on the rise in Victoria. Dental Health Services Victoria is leading a new program with oral health professionals to promote prevention and enable earlier detection.

Oral cancer is a leading cause of disease burden in Victoria, with an average of 14 new diagnoses and three deaths a week. Oral cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage, with poor prognosis and survival. This innovative program will support Victorian oral health professionals to raise awareness of oral cancer and detect it early, reducing the impact of the disease.

Oral cancer risk factors

The main risk factors for oral cancer are tobacco and alcohol consumption, and the combined effect of both tobacco and alcohol on a person’s risk is significantly greater. Oropharyngeal cancer linked with the human papilloma virus (HPV) is also on the rise. Oral cancer rates are higher in people over 45, especially men; and disadvantaged groups, who are more likely to smoke or drink and have low access to dental care. Oral health professionals have an opportunity to discuss risk factors with patients and encourage behaviour change.

Early detection of oral cancer

As oral cancer has a low survival rate currently, screening and early detection is crucial. This program will empower oral health professionals to identify people at risk, recognise early signs of cancerous lesions and refer appropriately, as part of a comprehensive oral examination. “With earlier diagnosis, a person’s treatment and prognosis can be enormously improved,” says Professor Michael McCullough from The University of Melbourne Dental School, a key partner in the program.

Oral cancer screening forms part of every comprehensive, periodic and limited oral examination. It takes only a short time and is an integral element of routine care. Early detection of oral cancer can save a patient’s life. In this short video, Professor Michael McCullough, Oral Medicine Specialist, Melbourne Dental School, University of Melbourne demonstrates how to conduct oral cancer screening.

Oral cancer screening and prevention program

To help reduce the impact of oral cancer on Victorians, a training program for oral health professionals was piloted in 2019, with 179 staff participating across 16 public and private dental clinics. The training covered risk factors, screening guidance and pathways for referral. Following evaluation of the pilot in 2020 the program will be offered to all Victorian oral health professionals, with the aim to significantly decrease the number of late stage oral cancer diagnoses.

The oral cancer screening and prevention program is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services. It is led by Dental Health Services Victoria, in partnership with the University of Melbourne Dental School, the Australian Dental Association (Victorian Branch), La Trobe University Department of Dentistry and the Department of Health and Human Services.

For more information contact Kym Lang, oral cancer screening and prevention lead at DHSV: kym.lang@dhsv.org.au

How to save a life in 3 minutes – oral cancer screening