Oral cancer is a growing health care concern and should be top of mind for every dental professional. The risk of oral cancer for tobacco users is well known. The sudden diagnosis of advanced oral cancer in any patient who regularly visits their dentist should raise concern the dentist failed to do a proper oral cancer screening. Delays in diagnosis of oral cancer can have serious consequences and may justify investigation into a dental malpractice lawsuit.
Does a dentist have a duty to protect a patient from oral cancer?
Dentists have a duty to protect patients from delays in detecting signs of cancer within the oral cavity and that portion of the throat just behind the mouth called the oropharynx. When dentists fail to recognize potential signs of oral cancer or make sure concerning findings are evaluated by a cancer specialist, a dental malpractice lawsuit based on the delayed diagnosis of oral cancer may be warranted.
Dentists should gather a complete history from every patient to learn about tobacco use and other risk factors which increase a patient’s risk of oral cancer. Just as importantly, dentists are expected to perform a careful physical evaluation of the neck, tongue and other parts of the oral cavity in order to identify potential signs of oral cancer. The examination is brief and can be performed in just a minute or two, but its impact can last a lifetime if cancer is diagnosed at an early stage.
What is a dentist expected to do if they find signs of oral cancer?
When a dental patient’s history and the presence of an oral lesion create suspicion for oral cancer, the patient’s dentist should refer the patient to a specialist who will do further testing and evaluation. This testing may include biopsies or radiology studies of the head and neck. By consulting specialists in oral cancer, dentists are critical to helping put patients on a path to treatment that offers the best chance to overcome the disease and prolong life.
How does a delay in diagnosis of oral cancer cause damages?
When a dental professional fails to screen a patient for oral cancer, they may cause a delay in the diagnosis of the disease. During the period of delay, oral cancer which begins as a small lesion in a discrete location can spread to other soft tissues or structures within the head and neck. A delay in diagnosis of many months or years may worsen the patient’s prognosis for survival.
Delays in diagnosis also increase the risk of serious side effects from surgery or radiation therapy directed toward the oral cavity and upper airway. Such side effects can seriously interfere with a patient’s ability to talk, eat, swallow, or breathe, presenting the awful reality of treatment which is worse than the disease.
In 2019, a jury from New Jersey returned a verdict of $2.1 million in favor of a man in his 50’s who suffered horrible injuries from a fourteen-month delay in diagnosis of oral cancer. The patient visited his dentist twice during the period of delay for evaluation of a painful tooth. The dentist performed X-rays and cleaned the patient’s teeth. However, the dentist did not perform an oral cancer screening. According to the plaintiff’s expert, the dentist would have found signs of oral cancer had he looked for lesions within the oral cavity. Regrettably, the patient’s early oral cancer progressed undetected until he developed a lump in his mouth. After he was diagnosed with Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma, the patient underwent surgical removal of part of his face with extensive reconstruction, radiation treatment and chemotherapy, all of which could have been avoided with earlier diagnosis.
The dental malpractice lawyers of Lupetin and Unatin understand the medical and legal issues central to a case involving the delay in diagnosis of oral cancer. We drill down to understand how different types of oral cancer manifest and grow. After researching treatment options and prognosis, we will determine not only the earliest time when a dentist or oral surgeon should have made the diagnosis, but how the delay in diagnosis changed the outcome for the patient. If a lawsuit is warranted, we will help you or your loved ones obtain compensation for all that has changed and all that was lost.