BACKGROUND: Oral cancer is an important global healthcare problem, its incidence is increasing and late-stage presentation is common. Screening programmes have been introduced for a number of major cancers and have proved effective in their early detection. Given the high morbidity and mortality rates associated with oral cancer, there is a need to determine the effectiveness of a screening programme for this disease, either as a targeted, opportunistic or population-based measure. Evidence exists from modelled data that a visual oral examination of high-risk individuals may be a cost-effective screening strategy and the development and use of adjunctive aids and biomarkers is becoming increasingly common.
OBJECTIVES: To assess the effectiveness of current screening methods in decreasing oral cancer mortality.
SEARCH METHODS: We searched the following electronic databases: the Cochrane Oral Health Group's Trials Register (to 22 July 2013), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2013, Issue 6), MEDLINE via OVID (1946 to 22 July 2013), EMBASE via OVID (1980 to 22 July 2013) and CANCERLIT via PubMed (1950 to 22 July 2013). There were no restrictions on language in the search of the electronic databases.
SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of screening for oral cancer or potentially malignant disorders using visual examination, toluidine blue, fluorescence imaging or brush biopsy.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors screened the results of the searches against inclusion criteria, extracted data and assessed risk of bias independently and in duplicate. We used mean differences (MDs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for continuous data and risk ratios (RRs) with 95% CIs for dichotomous data. Meta-analyses would have been undertaken using a random-effects model if the number of studies had exceeded a minimum of three. Study authors were contacted where possible and where deemed necessary for missing information.
MAIN RESULTS: A total of 3239 citations were identified through the searches. Only one RCT, with 15-year follow-up met the inclusion criteria (n = 13 clusters: 191,873 participants). There was no statistically significant difference in the oral cancer mortality rates for the screened group (15.4/100,000 person-years) and the control group (17.1/100,000 person-years), with a RR of 0.88 (95% CI 0.69 to 1.12). A 24% reduction in mortality was reported between the screening group (30/100,000 person-years) and the control group (39.0/100,000) for high-risk individuals who used tobacco or alcohol or both, which was statistically significant (RR 0.76; 95% CI 0.60 to 0.97). No statistically significant differences were found for incidence rates. A statistically significant reduction in the number of individuals diagnosed with stage III or worse oral cancer was found for those in the screening group (RR 0.81; 95% CI 0.70 to 0.93). No harms were reported. The study was assessed as at high risk of bias.
AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: There is evidence that a visual examination as part of a population-based screening programme reduces the mortality rate of oral cancer in high-risk individuals. In addition, there is a stage shift and improvement in survival rates across the population as a whole. However, the evidence is limited to one study, which has a high risk of bias and did not account for the effect of cluster randomisation in the analysis. There was no evidence to support the use of adjunctive technologies like toluidine blue, brush biopsy or fluorescence imaging as a screening tool to reduce oral cancer mortality. Further RCTs are recommended to assess the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of a visual examination as part of a population-based screening programme in low, middle and high-income countries.