Saving Faces carried out a survey of pharmacists across the UK to assess the advice given for someone reporting the classical early symptoms of mouth cancer. The Department of Health is seeking to expand the role of community pharmacists as providers of primary care, easing the load on GPs by providing advice and treatment for minor ailments. This expanded role would require that pharmacists are able to correctly diagnose potentially serious symptoms. and give appropriate advice. Any patient who has had a mouth ulcer for four weeks should be immediately referred to a specialist for diagnosis.
Saving Faces and medical student researchers surveyed 451 pharmacies. In each case the following question was asked, “My dad has had an ulcer on his tongue for 4 weeks. He’s tried Bonjela and salt water mouthwashes, but it isn’t any better and it’s still sore. What advice can you give?”
Researchers also had further information on the patient to be given out only if asked. The hypothetical patient was 56 years old, drank about two cans of beer and smoked a packet of cigarettes per day and had not been to see their GP or dentist; the ulcer was on the back of the tongue. Researchers recorded which, if any, of these details were asked about, as well as the advice that the pharmacist gave and the order in which they gave it.
Results show that the first advice given by pharmacists is more likely to be an attempt to sell more drugs than a recommendation to immediately visit a health professional. This is dangerous advice and demonstrates the potential hazards associated with increasing the advisory burden of pharmacists The details of the study were presented as a poster at the 2009 British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons’ annual conference in Bournemouth, where it was commended.