April is Oral Cancer Awareness month. Throughout the month dentists, doctors, and other community groups will bring awareness of this often fatal, yet treatable disease.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, “Close to 49,750 Americans will be diagnosed with oral oropharyngeal cancer this year. It will cause over 9,750 deaths, killing roughly 1 person per hour, 24 hours per day. Of those 49,750 newly diagnosed individuals, only 57% will be alive in 5 years.”

Unfortunately, the death rate for oral cancer is higher than that of more well-known cancers such as cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and throat cancer.

The World Health Organization estimates that 450,000 new cases of oral and throat cancers are found each year.

What is Wrong?

One of the biggest reasons oral cancer is fatal is that in the vast majority of cases, the cancer is found in one of the later stages, after it has spread to other areas of deep tissue in the throat and nose.

The early stages of oral cancer can be easily missed by both the patient and dentist. Sometimes there is no pain or discomfort or any visible lesions or sores.

As of 2010, over $3 billion has been spent on oral cancer treatment.

When Should I Sue?

The prevalence and severity of oral cancer has pressured most dentists to make oral cancer screening a part of their standard teeth cleaning and exam services.

Despite the routine testing for oral cancer, the failure to diagnose patients with the disease is the second most common cause of dental malpractice lawsuits.

Why?

Most dental hygienists either fail to test patients or they overlook the dental abnormalities that should trigger red flags. Dental hygienists who do the dental exams are not required to know the signs and symptoms of every oral pathology. They are required to notify the dentist and do additional tests if any dental abnormality is noticed.

Not carefully obtaining the patient’s oral and family history is another reason oral cancer is not detected or looked for in the dental examination. An in-depth look at a patient’s family, and social history, possible lifestyle risk factors, and the patient’s head and neck are to be done at the dentist office as part of the oral cancer screening.

Patients who complain of pain or discomfort after four weeks should be promptly seen by a specialist for diagnosis. If a lesion is detected a biopsy is to be performed immediately.

With most dentists claiming to test for oral cancer, why are so many patients suing their dentist for failure to diagnose oral cancer?

Oral cancer lawsuits are extremely costly for dentist, with payouts sometimes exceeding that of the dentist’s malpractice coverage limits.

What scenarios warrant a lawsuit? Here are the four most common grounds for an oral cancer lawsuit:

Errors in Judgment: A dentist can over-rely on diagnostic study despite the presence of the telltale persistent lesion of oral cancer. A dentist will side with a negative result rather than investigate the physical signs of oral cancer. This situation happens a lot for patients who are not part of a high-risk group.

Lack of Follow Up: A dentist notices a dental abnormality in the initial exam. After initial testing, the patient is urged to make a follow-up appointment, especially should their condition worsen. Not all dentists do this. Failure to follow up with the patient and check in on their condition means the cancer is worsening and the patient will only come in when there is noticeable pain or discomfort, often in the late stages of the cancer.

Failure to Properly Screen Patients: Infrequent or lack of oral cancer screenings by dentists, especially for patients in a risk category, can easily make the cancer flourish and grow undetected.

Delays in Evaluation and Treatment: Unnecessary repeated patient visits, failure to perform necessary evaluations and testing, and failure to ask for a referral or consultation when test findings are not clear or conclusive can delay proper diagnosis, and therefore proper treatment.

The longer the patient goes without getting their cancer treated, the harder it becomes to treat and the likelihood of it spreading to fatal levels increases.

If you or anyone you know have gotten late stage oral cancer because of one or more of the above situations, you have a valid lawsuit case.

Chianese & Reilly Law P.C. is an experienced New York law firm specializing in dental malpractice cases. We have successfully helped our clients win their cases and get the just compensation they deserve.

Contact us today for more information or to learn how we can help you in your oral cancer dental malpractice case.