Methods: A pre-tested, validated 62-item survey was mailed to a 1% national random sample of licensed dental hygienists, (n = 960). Four complete mailings of the instrument resulted in a 74.4% percent return rate of which 65% percent were usable (n = 464). Respondents provided information on their knowledge of oral cancer risk assessment factors, their use of health history questions to assess patients' oral cancer risks, how they conduct oral cancer examinations, and their beliefs about their oral cancer training. Data were analyzed using descriptive and inferential statistics and evaluated at a significance level of p < or = 0.05.
Results: Based on responses to 14 questions, the average score on knowledge of oral cancer risk factors was 7.92, with a significant difference found among age groups and year of graduation, (p = 0.006). On average, dental hygienists assessed five of eight risk assessment items with "use of alcohol" receiving the least attention. Although nearly 100% percent agreed that oral cancer examinations for adults 40 years of age or older should be provided annually, only 66% percent reported doing so for patients on their initial appointment. Seventy-four percent believed they were adequately trained to provide oral cancer examinations, while only 27 percent agreed that they were prepared to provide tobacco cessation counseling. There was no significant correlation between knowledge of oral cancer risk factors and probing these risk factors when conducting a health history.
Conclusions: Results from this study indicate that interventions are needed to increase dental hygienists' knowledge of oral cancer risk factors, correct misinformation, and close the gap between their knowledge and its application in providing prevention and early detection services. The majority believed that they are not as knowledgeable as they could be and are interested in attending an oral cancer continuing education (CE) course.