Dental Tourism: Is It Right For You?

In today’s healthcare debate nobody seems to be talking much about the high cost of dentistry, or the lack of insurance coverage. Maybe you’re lucky and squeak by with a few cleanings and a filling here and there. For those who are not so lucky, the cost of dentistry can be devastating, with bills that can run up to $60,000. What can someone do who wants to keep their teeth but who does not want to empty their bank account (assuming they even have that money)?

One solution is “dental tourism,” the act of traveling out of the U.S. to receive quality care, save money and perhaps even make a vacation out of the experience.

The cost of dental care has about tripled in the past 20 years. For the 50% of Americans who have dental insurance, reimbursement is usually capped at about $1,500 a year, as it has been for decades. The 50% of patients without dental insurance (in Seniors that number rises to 80%) may find a trip to the dentist is a trip to the bank.

According to the New York Times, about 40% of people who travel for medical care (a number that continues to increase year to year), do so for dental care. That is not surprising, considering the potential to save 50%-70%, or even more, depending on the country chosen for treatment.

Before jumping on the next plane, the dental patient needs to understand more about dental tourism:

So let’s open wide, and take a closer look.

Finding a Dentist: The key thing a dental tourist should look for is quality care. Check the dentist’s credentials. Where was he/she trained? What experience do they have in the procedure that you need? What associations and other dental groups do they belong to?

Standards of training and care are similar across the industrialized world. Dentists fly around the world for training and conferences and essentially best practices are similar everywhere. Most expensive dental procedures, as implants, have been performed for years everywhere and have a track record of success and safety.

“Every year we bring to NYU 110 dentists from 33 countries, train them in advanced procedures, and then they go home,” says New York University’s Dr. Stewart Hirsch, associate dean of New York University College of Dentistry in Manhattan. “There is no reason to assume the quality of care is any lower overseas.” (quoted in Business Week).

Fluency in English is very valuable. Some countries where people get dental work lack English speakers, and require translators. It can be difficult to sometimes understand your dentist anywhere, so make sure the dentist who treats you speaks the language.

How the Dental Tourism Process Works: Once you comfortable with a dentist overseas, let him/her know the work that you need. Usually, the dental tourist has already been examined by a dentist where they live, who has taken x-rays and provided an estimate. All patients are legally entitled to ask for a copy of their dental records.

Any qualified dentist abroad will need to see your records before creating a treatment plan and estimating work for you. You want to keep surprises to a minimum and it is reasonable for a dentist to see your records before you show up in the waiting room (though sometimes, the dentist abroad may recommend less work, or find something else needs to be done).

If you are going for implants (as many people do) you will need to make two trips. The first trip is for the implant surgery and the second is for the crowns that need to be fitted once the implants are secure (about six months later). Plan your trip accordingly.

Best Places to Go for Treatment: For most Americans, Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama (all have quality dentists and are somewhat similar in fees) are the major destinations for dental tourism, although dentists as far away as Thailand and India advertise their services. Commonly chosen expensive procedures like implants require 2 visits, so the dental tourist is usually looking for work in places that they can get to easily, with low airfares.

Dental tourism is tourism in the truest sense, because patients will have time and will likely be able to tour the country, either for beach vacations, jungle exploration or other sites of interest. All three countries have great sights to see. If you like ecotourism and viewing exotic species, Panama and Costa Rica both will fulfill your dreams.

How Can a Dental Tourism Facilitator Help? An Internet search of the term “dental tourism” will find over a million entries. No wonder finding the right dentist is time consuming.

“Finding a good dentist is not an easy process. You must be willing to put in a fair amount of legwork. Expect that it will take about eight to 10 hours of early research to find a list of reputable dentists, then another eight to 10 to a establish a relationship with one or more.” – Peter Greenburg , CBS News Travel Editor, AARP Travel Ambassador.

With the growth of dental travel, a new specialty has sprung up: the dental facilitator. These are companies that have done the leg work and have agreements with specialists and even have local tour companies around the world that can make arrangements on the ground, from pickup at the airport to lodging to tours. Facilitators can save the dental tourist time and money. Since their fees are usually paid by the provider, the dental tourist gets the knowledge base of the facilitator without paying extra.

Most facilitators are generalists: they have relationships across all areas of medicine and countries, and can send you for a heart transplant or a hip implant as well as a dental implant.

Today, because of the popularity of dental tourism, specialty facilitators are becoming more common. Working only with dentists, these facilitators can focus on a more comprehensive vetting of practitioners, even visiting them in their offices and viewing their equipment, laboratory, etc. As in all areas of healthcare, specialization benefits the consumer.

Dental Tourist is Not For Everyone: Saving 50%-70% on quality dental care is certainly appealing, but there are those who should not consider it. The most common procedure that dental tourists seek is implants. They are a procedure that have been perfected for fifty years and they are successful in more than 95% of patients. However, if the work you need carries an exceptional level of risk, you might consider being treated at home.

Traveling for dental work requires a commitment of time, which many people may not have. Others may find that the travel is preferable to the routine of running off to the dentist at lunch hour and returning to the office. As the author of a feature on dental tourism in the New York Times said “Remarkably, some patients argue that a flight and a few hours in the dental chair is less hassle than having to rush back to the office half-sedated. For others, turning a trip to the dentist into a family vacation takes their mind off pending procedures.”

Traveling abroad adds an expense to the cost of dental work. So you would not want to fly out for dental work unless you need an amount of work that makes the trip worthwhile (if you are already planning to be traveling to the destination country, the $1000 you save on a root canal will pay for your airfare and more).

It is estimated that the patient who needs a minimum of $10,000 of work in the States, will save about $5,000-$6,000 on treatment. Two trips of a week each will run about $3,500 in total. Two free vacations are pretty good. When the US estimate for work moves up to $20,000, savings after travel expenses will be $6,500-$8,500…a nice piece of change for sure!

Summary: The world is flat and today the consumer has the option of choosing from a wide variety of goods and services.

As one trustee of the American Dental Association said, “The ADA is keeping an eye on the phenomenon of dental tourism as just one element of globalization — a wide range of economic, social and geopolitical factors affecting the way of life for millions around the world, including U.S. dentists and the patients they serve…” Disappearing borders and the ease of air travel today make a flat world a shrinking world. It’s easy to travel anywhere.

By Jeff Apton 

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