Dental student project addresses the role of the dentist in head and neck cancer
A dental student applies a fluoride varnish for a patient with head and neck cancer

A project by dental students at Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, supported by the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise, Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust, the Diving Diseases Research Centre in Plymouth, cancer charity FORCE and Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, has created a resource for local patients with head and neck cancer to share their experiences and improve access to post-operation dental care.

The project is part of the Inter-Professional Engagement (IPE) programme which is part of dental studies, and which sees dental students interact with a variety of groups within the wider community. The IPE scheme is run by the Community Engagement team at the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise.

The students worked with a number of patients in the Plymouth area, to better understand how their condition affects their everyday lives and to explore how dentists can contribute to ongoing dental care and quality of life.

The project involved visits to the Diving Diseases Research Centre to experience hyperbaric oxygen treatment and find out how it can benefit head and neck cancer patients; interaction with the Mustard Tree Macmillan Centre, oncology teams and dry mouth clinic at Derriford Hospital; the oral cancer team at Musgrove Park Hospital, and; the head and neck cancer support group at FORCE.

It also included regular meetings with local patients incorporating dental treatments and therapies such as fluoride varnishing.

The project resulted in the creation of PHANCS (Peninsula Head and Neck Cancer Support), a group for patients to share their experiences via a Facebook page and recommendations for a fast-track referral system for patients who have had treatment at Derriford Hospital to the Derriford Dental Education Facility (run by the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise and where dental students treat NHS patients under supervision, as part of their studies).

Sarah Armstrong is one of the dental students who ran this project. She said: 

“It has been a privilege to work with such a wonderful group of patients, and our thanks go to them for the time they have given us. Our thanks go too to all the other professionals who have offered us help as part of the project. We have all benefited from it in different ways, but overall it has reinforced that all important need to view a patient as a whole person and not just a mouth to be treated. We hope that what we have achieved as a student project will go on to be a sustainable resource for people with head and neck cancer.”

One patient said: 

“This was very well put together and very informative so I'll have lots to discuss with my dentist in the near future and I'm going in armed with more knowledge thanks to your work.”

Professor Robert Witton, Director of the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise, said: 

“This is an excellent example of how we combine dental education, addressing an oral health need and working with other health care profession colleagues to the benefit of all concerned. My thanks go to all the organisations who have supported this project, and importantly to the patients themselves, who have been so generous with their time and their stories.”