Dental Tourism: The Good, the Bad and the Molar


Let’s face it. The sad fact is that your teeth will likely wear out before you do. That can mean a substantial financial outlay not covered by Medicare or private insurance.

When my husband, Stu, was faced with the cost of extensive dentistry, we actually opted for treatment in Mexico. While this might seem exotic and even exciting, it actually was somewhat routine. And that’s the way we like our dentistry—no surprises.

What came as a BIG surprise was the extreme cost of treatment in the US.

Six months ago, Stu was getting sicker and sicker, and his ailment was tough to diagnose. Finally, it was determined that he had gum disease, causing a systemwide infection. Left untreated, it could have led to sepsis.

Our family dentist sent Stu to a periodontist, who did immediate gum therapy, and then to a dental surgeon, who made four extractions. Next, came a plan of care that included five more extractions, two root canals, 16 crowns and whitening to match the color. By then, we needed a cardiologist more than a dentist as we were about to have a heart attack over the sticker price.

Estimated Cost: $31,800, plus the periodontal work and first four extractions with no caps, for which we had already paid $3,000.

Here is my first piece of advice if you need dentistry.

Start with your local dentist, and be honest that the cost is hard for you to handle. As a financial writer, folks think that money can never be an issue for me or my family. Not true. This level of nonreimbursed outlay was tough to take, and while it was embarrassing, we said so. Don’t hesitate to own up if you have a money issue with the cost of treatment.

Many dentists offer dental plans, financing or reduced rates for seniors. The National Council on Aging benefits checkup site could uncover local dental benefits that you are not aware of. When I filled out the form for my mother, I discovered ongoing dentistry discounts from a local dentist based on her age and income.

After much research with regard to service quality and pricing, we decided to consider dental tourism. We told our dentist of our plans. It was important for us to have local support in case Stu’s infection returned or there was another problem upon our return. She understood. Frankly, I think she was curious to hear about our experience.

Both my husband and I had been medical tourists before, although unplanned. We travel a lot—a lot! We’re just as likely to get sick in Tashkent as in Brooklyn. I have been treated in such diverse venues as Malaysia, Lapland, Germany, Greece, India and England.

I tell you this because you may have fears or prejudices about quality of care that prevent you from having treatment. Through the years, I have discovered that many destinations, especially those that promote medical tourism, are familiar with American health care and train staff to make us comfortable.

For example, at a speaking engagement for the American Mexican Retirement Association (AMAR), I met Susan Gold, a “medical cultural competency trainer.” She explained that it is not uncommon in Mexico for a doctor to be paid in cash directly. To us, this would seem very strange. In medical tourism clinics, the bill is paid at the front desk with credit cards or checks, which are more in alignment with American payment methods.

It’s easy to find meccas of medical and dental tourism. Countries that promote medical tourism even have Ministries of Tourism and Economic Development, with a focus on making you welcome for health care. Check out the Dental Tourism AssociationMedical Tourism Association and Patients Beyond Borders. You’ll discover the world’s treatment hot spots.

Six countries vie for the distinction of the venue of choice for dentistry—Mexico, Costa Rica, Hungary, Malaysia, the Philippines and Poland.

For us, it was easiest to fly to San Diego and cross the border to Tijuana, Mexico. But I also considered Molar City—that’s what they call the tiny town of Los Algodones, Mexico, which boasts 400 dentists who welcome tourism, and is touted as the cheapest and largest dental center in Mexico…maybe in the world.

How to choose? Dental Departures can help you select your dentist. It is exclusively in the medical tourism matchmaking business. The site narrowed my choice to three.

Here’s the process: We entered our requirements on the Dental Departures website as precisely as possible—the locations we were willing to visit, the work we needed to have done, our city of departure. Within a few hours, we received three suggestions with the name, website and ballpark price for each.

Next, I eliminated the most expensive, which was in Costa Rica. I did this largely because of the cost of travel and that we have family and business associates in California who we could see en route to our dentistry trip.

I called the other two. I liked the folks at Washington Dental Clinic, located in Tijuana, because they took time with me, even though I was a cold caller. I subsequently learned that you don’t need to speak directly with any dentist office, as Dental Departures will get you answers and shepherd you through the process.

Listen to Show #41 of Generation Bold Radio, to hear my interview with Paul McTaggart, founder of Dental Departures. He reveals the ins and outs of how he selects dentists worldwide and tips that help you make the selection.

The dentistry: A word from Stu on his experience…

“I was impressed by the technology, particularly the stylus used to make instant x-rays as the work progressed. I had never seen that before. The nearly instant temporary crowns that looked as good as the permanents, sent us home feeling great and worry-free. The concierge translated the dentist’s Spanish, so I knew what was happening at all times.”

Recovery: When planning your trip, be sure to build in time for recuperation nearby your practitioner. The good news is that medical and dental tourism destinations are affiliated with local hotels and many local attractions. Accompanying family can enjoy the venue before or after the treatment.

But make no mistake; the patient needs recuperation and should not be too aggressive a tourist right after treatment. In our case, Stu and I stayed at a nice hotel for two nights at the total cost of $150 including breakfast.

We ate at Caesar’s restaurant, where the famous Mexican chef created the original Caesar salad at the behest of notorious Chicago gangsters. I had a great meal. Stu had soup. I enjoyed myself. Stu was tired.

Hidden drawback of dental (and medical) tourism: While sitting in the waiting room, being offered free juice, water and snacks, I eavesdropped on at least a dozen California residents for whom the Washington Dental Clinic is their only dentist. They simply cross the border from San Diego. The clinic pays for the five-minute taxi ride to and from the border and for parking at the border.

But for us—and for others considering medical tourism—it’s critical to factor in time and costs for the required treatment and followup visits. We didn’t realize the number of times that we would have to revisit. Additionally, Stu is “dental-phobic” and chose to take his treatment in smaller “bites” than I might have done. Stu’s dental phobia is part of what got us into this predicament in the first place. He is not alone. Many people similarly avoid the dentist. This is very dangerous, and as the years go on, the dental problems can become life-threatening if neglect becomes periodontal disease.

The final say: It’s not necessary to ever go abroad when we have such exceptional health care here in the US. But if the time comes when your nest egg is threatened by health or dental costs, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to consider saving money by becoming a health tourist.

Bottom Line

Work done: Two root canals…five extractions…16 titanium caps

Cost of treatment: $9,500

Cost of travel: $1,200 for Stu’s three airfares…and one two-night hotel at a $150 with breakfast. Otherwise we stayed with relatives in California after the first visit.

Total savings: More than $20,000!! That’s savings you can sink your teeth into.