Better HPV Literacy Can Help Dentists Fight Oropharyngeal Cancer

Dentistry Today


While vaccines are proving effective in stopping the spread of the human papillomavirus (HPV), it is still the cause of 72% of oropharyngeal cancers, according to the University of Southern Florida (USF) College of Public Health. Dentists can play a role in stopping its spread as well, but they need to be more informed about the disease themselves, the USF researchers report. 

“Given the alarming increase of HPV-attributable oropharyngeal cancers, dentists and dental hygienists may be key agents for promoting HPV prevention,” said Ellen Daley, PhD, the study’s lead investigator and a professor at the school. “However, there’s a serious need for better training and education in the dental community. 

The study conducted four focus groups with 33 dentists at a 2016 regional dental conference. During the discussions, most dentists said that there were a number of reasons why they don’t discuss HPV prevention methods with their patients. For example, some admitted to not knowing enough about HPV’s symptoms, transmission, progression, and prevention methods, or about how patients contract HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer. 

Other dentists admitted to lacking the proper communication skills to discuss such a sensitive subject, especially when age is a factor. Younger patients are most at risk for HPV, so many dental professionals are uncertain if conversations about HPV prevention should happen with the adolescent or the parent. Also, HPV could be inactive for years, impacting older patients.

“I know as a professional, you really should be able to talk like that. But for me, sometimes with patients the same age as my grandpa, I find it very uncomfortable to talk with him about anything related to HPV and their sexual activity,” said one study participant. “I guess I’m a little weirded out by that.”

Providing communication skills and training about HPV can help dental professionals educate patients about the HPV vaccine and advise adolescent and young adult patients (up to age 26) to get it. Dental professionals regularly perform oropharyngeal cancer screenings, though most only discuss them with patients who exhibit symptoms. Many participants said their offices lack sufficient privacy and they don’t want to embarrass their patients.

Pediatricians, family medicine practitioners, obstetricians, and gynecologists typically address HPV prevention methods. Yet nearly 85% of the children in the United States see a dentist or dental hygienist, the researchers said, making dental professionals another important group that could be more involved in HPV prevention. By addressing dentists’ HPV-related health literacy, Daley said, they will be better able to educate patients and ultimately reduce the numbers of oropharyngeal cancers. 

The study, “Assessing Dentists’ Human Papillomavirus-Related Health Literacy for Oropharyngeal Cancer Prevention,” was published by JADA.

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