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Dental tourism could save you big money

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    Traveling overseas for your next dental could make financial sense, but experts say to do your research before you jump on that flight.iStock

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    Dr. Gabriela Kalanoska's dental office in Macedonia.Brandon Green

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    If you plan right, you can also visit sites, such as Lake Orhid in Macedonia.Brandon Green

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    Costs of popular dental procedures.Patients Beyond Borders

We all know it’s important to take care of our teeth, but we’re also familiar with the costs involved. 

For Americans willing to hop on a plane, visiting a dentist in another country could save travelers over 70 percent on dental procedures such as crowns and root canals, according to data from medical publisher Patients Beyond Borders.

Some 130 million Americans live without dental insurance, according a 2012 report to Congress called Dental Crisis in America from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Because even the insured face out-of-pocket costs, it might make financial sense to fly to your next dental appointment.

You Won’t Be Alone

"We estimate that in 2012, 400,000 Americans crossed international borders for dental care. For 2013, we project a growth rate of approximately 20 percent," says Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders.

Emily Ross of Whatclinic.com, a global healthcare professional search provider for medical tourism patients, says that the most-searched-for destinations for Americans seeking dental care are Mexico, the U.K., the Philippines, Costa Rica, and India. Dental implants, crowns, and dentures are the most popular searches.

While procedures abroad may be cheaper, there are a number of things you'll want to consider before traveling internationally for dental care.

Dr. Maria Lopez Howell, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association, says, “If something goes wrong, what is the recourse? Is there a ministry of health? Is there a forum for complaints in the country that you’re going to visit? You really have to do your research.”

Yet, Dr. Howell says it’s important to remember that there are good dentists everywhere. “We all have colleagues across this planet who are very capable and knowledgeable experts in their fields. No dentist [in any] country is perfect.”

It’s understandable to be a little worried about visiting a dentist in another country.  Before I quit my job on Wall Street and started traveling, I was a little worried myself.

My last visit to a dentist outside of the U.S. was in the lakeside town of Ohrid, Macedonia (FYROM). I knew that I needed a crown, and I had heard that people often find inexpensive dental care in Eastern Europe, so when I saw a brochure, I did some research. Though the office was not registered with common dental tourism search engines, it did have some online presence. Next, I gave Dr. Gabriela Kalanoska a call. On the phone we discussed the procedure I needed and the price, and I made sure I was comfortable having her work on my teeth. After examining my teeth and discussing my treatment options, she replaced a crown that had cost me thousands of dollars in the U.S. The cost: about $130, including x-rays. I was so happy with the results that I had her replace another crown later that week.

In this case, I had good results through the same methods I might use to find a dentist in the U.S., but experts on both sides of the dental tourism debate recommend more stringent preparation.

Finding the Right Dentist

To find the best dentist for you, begin your search online. For most destinations, a quick Google search will bring up a number of dentistry sites and dental tourism search engines. Websites such as WhatClinic.com provide client reviews of dentists. Listings at PatientsBeyondBorders.com only admit clinics that have passed a stringent vetting process, including U.S. board certification and patient referrals.

“If you want to ensure the best possible medical travel journey, check your doctor for U.S. board certification,” says Woodman.

If you can get recommendations from locals you trust, you may be able to find an excellent dentist for even less than the dental tourism crowd. In Colombia, someone recommended a dentist who charged me around 30 percent less than the already low rates advertised on dental tourism sites. I have received excellent care using this method, but keep in mind: dentists who cater to locals may not be members of U.S. health organizations, or have reviews on the Internet that will help you make a more informed decision.

You may want to contact local dental organizations that are affiliated with American organizations through international bodies. “If people are going overseas, and they’re seeking esthetic dentistry and have no resource like a personal referral that they can trust, I would check to see if [dentists] in that country are members of the International Federation of Esthetic Dentistry. It comprises 29 organizations around the world that cater to esthetic dentistry,” says Dr. Jack Ringer, president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

Call potential dentists and speak with them directly about your care options. If you are most comfortable receiving dental care from a professional who speaks English, insist on it.

Remember to inquire not only about the dentist, but any other professionals. Dr. Ringer advises, “I would want the dentist to be able to assure me that the people they work with for ancillary care, laboratories particularly, orthodontists, periodontists, would have the same level of experience that he or she has in the field of restorative dentistry.”

Know the Procedures

Before flying, have a basic idea of what is involved in dental procedures, such as crowns, implants, and root canals. Once you arrive at the office, discuss all of the procedures and options with your dentist one last time and clarify the total cost. Focus on going to a dentist for their overall professional care rather than just seeking a specific procedure, advises Dr. Howell. “You need to go and get the exam, get the x-rays, get the treatment plan. I would want to know very clearly what each step of the treatment plan is. Are you prepared to stay for a length of time required to get the best care possible?” Dr. Ringer adds, “The primary goal of a dentist is to educate a patient about their options, and the second is to treat.”

It’s also important to know what materials are being used, said Woodman. “There’s a lot of parity (use of the same standard materials from one dentist to another) in the United States, but there’s not in other countries. It’s important when getting an implant to ask the dentist what they are using. The brand, size, and other specifications.” Have the dentist record this information for your records. Keep in mind that the particular model of implant or other material used by your dentist may not be used in the U.S., and therefore may not be FDA-approved.

Never undergo dental procedures because you feel pressured to do so. I have never felt pressured by dentists outside of the U.S., but should you, know that you can leave and find another dentist.

What to Expect From Your Visit

If you are already worried about traveling overseas without the added stress of dental care, international dental travel will not be for you. However, if you do decide to travel for dental procedures, you may find yourself pleasantly reassured by the familiarity of the dentist’s office.

In my experience, dental offices overseas look more or less the same as those in the U.S. Many have the same dental chair, too-bright lights, and little sink for you to spit in. Dr. Howell recommends taking a careful look around the dentist’s office before undergoing treatment to make sure the environment is similar to what you would expect at home. “Where is the sterilizer? Are the instruments coming out of a sterile packet? Are they wearing gloves and masks? We have an understanding of what the requirements are in the United States, and there’s no reason to expect any less anywhere else.”

But experts say, don’t forget about the recovery time, especially if you want to hit the beach afterward. I have undergone dental procedures and then later in the day went paragliding in Colombia, took in rock concerts in Costa Rica, and soaked up the sun on a lakeside beach in Macedonia. Your recovery experiences may vary. It is important when planning your trip to know how you normally recover from dental work and have relaxing options for post-care activities.

Follow up and Recourse

One drawback of dental travel is that should you require additional care, your dentist may be on the other side of the planet. If the need for emergency care arises while you are at home or you don't want to make a second trip, you will need to make an appointment with a local dentist, who may not be familiar with the materials that were used abroad. Keeping careful records of any procedures you have undergone domestically or abroad will aid your next dentist in providing you the best care.

Dr. Ringer has had patients who went abroad for dental care and came to him to fix the work they had done. “Those patients are even harder to treat the second time. Not only do we have the challenge of making them happy, but we have the challenge of helping them trust again.”

If visiting a dentist during your vacation, be sure to schedule your appointment as early in your trip as possible. Your procedures may require out-of-office processing or follow-up, or you may elect to undergo additional work once you’ve completed your original procedure.

If something goes wrong with your dental procedure done in a foreign country, U.S. citizens can try and seek recourse through malpractice lawsuits, but experts say it’s not always an easy route.  It’s worth researching what rights you have before something goes wrong, as these options will vary from country to country. Dr. Ringer recommends “that a patient speak to local regulatory bodies, [and confirm] that there is a recourse system.”

Other Costs

Keep in mind that when traveling overseas for dental care, you will incur costs typically associated with international travel. Remember to budget for hotels, visas, food, and airfare, as you would for any international trip.

Also, be sure to discuss all costs associated with your dental work with your dentist prior to beginning any procedures.

If price is your biggest consideration, research dental professionals separately from accommodations, as dental tourism vacation packages that include hotels or attractions will likely be more expensive.

Remember that, even if your primary objective is dental care, you’re on vacation, so plan to go out and have some fun.

Further reading: Check out Patients Beyond Borders, Whatclinic.com and American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry

Brandon Green is a former investment banker who now travels the world full time. When not in the dentist chair, he writes about his adventures at Brandonisstillalive.com.