WASHINGTON, D.C. — AmeriHealth Caritas District of Columbia announced Tuesday the launch of a new screening initiative designed to increase early detection of oral cancer, and decrease mortality rates caused by late detection.

The pilot program offers a team of participating dental providers in the District the latest oral cancer screening technology to encourage oral cancer screening at all routine dental exams.

“Oral cancer is a serious health issue affecting our region,” said Karen Dale, market president of AmeriHealth Caritas District of Columbia. “We know that the District has the highest oral cancer incidence rate in the nation, and that African American males are disproportionately impacted. This is a health disparity that must be addressed with urgency, and we have chosen to do so now — not later.”

Early detection key to prevention

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, with 9,500 oral cancer related deaths. Top causes include tobacco and alcohol use, weakened immune system, overexposure of the lips to the sun, and the human papillomavirus (HPV).

The Oral Cancer Foundation reports that mortality rates for the disease are comparatively higher than other prevalent forms of cancer due to late detection. It is especially dangerous because early symptoms are typically painless and go unnoticed by the patient until it reaches an advanced stage; still, physicians and dentists can, in many cases, identify oral cancer early on.

“Our biggest weapon in fighting oral cancer is early detection. Now, that process is as simple as a visit to the dentist,” said Dr. Nathan Fletcher, dental director for AmeriHealth Caritas District of Columbia, and former president of the National Dental Association. “Participating providers in our screening initiative will have access to advanced technology to help detect oral cancer during routine dental visits, a major tool to help identify oral cancer in its early stages.”

Dr. Fletcher notes a distinction, however, related to oral cancer linked to HPV. “HPV-related cancer is often difficult to detect due to its location within the mouth or throat, and the symptoms are usually hard to distinguish for both patients and providers. The use of this technology will allow dental providers to screen and detect hard-to-diagnose forms of oral cancer.”

AmeriHealth Caritas will initially work with two federally qualified health centers, two oral surgeons, and two private dental practices to serve as the initial group of providers for the pilot program.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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