Throughout the country, patients are being diagnosed with oral cancers that should have been detected by their dentists. Overall, these patients are diagnosed at a young age, and suffer poor outcomes in their cancer treatment. Medical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins dive deeper into this issue and how unsuspecting Americans are being victimized.
Many different types of cancer can fall under the category of 'oral' including tongue, tonsil, throat, esophageal, and mouth. More than 43,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer every year, and this number is only increasing. Most oral cancers are caused by one of three factors:
1. Excessive or long-term tobacco or alcohol use
2. Exposure to the HPV-16 virus (also the cause of cervical cancer in women)
3. Exposure to asbestos
About 7% of those diagnosed, however, have no identifiable cause other than genetic predisposition. Unfortunately, oral cancers are extremely hard to treat and therefore extraordinarily fatal when not caught early - about 43% of late-stage patients pass away within five years of diagnosis.
This is why early detection is so important, and such a critical responsibility for dentists and other medical practitioners. Dental professionals are the first line of defense against detecting and confirming oral cancer. Most Americans see a dentist every year, if dentists performed cancer screenings for their existing patients, it would allow thousands of cancer cases to be caught early.
The public can relate this to the importance of getting regular PAP smears, prostate exams, and mammograms, and how this has positively impacted early detection rates in the U.S. Current studies show that less than 15% of dental patients report having an oral cancer screening at their last checkup.
One particular study by the University of Nebraska Medical center analyzed medical malpractice litigation in the U.S. Researchers looked at patients diagnosed with oral cancer who consequently filed malpractice lawsuits as a result of their diagnosis and treatment. They used data from jury reviews between 1984 and 2000, choosing about 50 cases to analyze.
Among the cases, researchers noticed that the average age of plaintiffs was relatively young (45 years), and nearly half died from the disease. Generally, the younger plaintiffs had better outcomes and won higher awards compared to older plaintiffs. The average jury award for younger plaintiffs was just over $755,000, while older plaintiffs averaged just shy of $500,000.
In 43 of the 50 analyzed cases, dentists, general practitioners or otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) were accused of failing to diagnose the cancer. Other common allegations were failing to perform biopsies and failing to refer patients to oncologists. Ultimately, researchers recommended that medical professionals should set risk management goals to prevent delays in diagnosis.
In addition to early detection, public awareness is arguably the most important aspect of early detection. Speaking for hypochondriacs everywhere, it is easy to misdiagnose every lesion and abnormality as "cancer," however, oral cancer is actually quite difficult to detect. Most people have some type of oral conditions, such as cold sores, wounds and sores that can mimic pre-cancerous tissue.
It is important to remember to watch these areas over time. Any type of abnormality - whether it be a sore, irritation, swollen tissue, discoloration, or hoarseness - that does not resolve within two weeks should be examined further. Patients should notify their dentist, who should conduct a thorough cancer screening.