It’s no secret that dentistry in the United States can be expensive. Many patients struggle to afford all their treatment needs, which has led some patients to seek dental care outside of the United States in countries where it is much cheaper. Dental tourism is when a patient travels abroad specifically to receive dental care.
Dental professionals should be knowledgeable about the risks and rewards of dental tourism so they can educate patients.
The Benefits of Dental Tourism
The most obvious benefit of dental tourism is that patients can receive treatment at a fraction of the cost. This might allow patients to complete treatment more quickly than if they had to wait and save up for dental work provided locally. As we know, caries, periodontal disease, and dental infections will only worsen over time if left untreated.
This might also allow a patient to pick the optimal solution to a dental issue rather than the most affordable option. For example, a patient might be able to afford an implant instead of a bridge, or root canal treatment, buildup, and crown, instead of extracting the tooth.
Furthermore, some patients may be drawn to the travel aspect of dental tourism. Patients can incorporate their overseas dental work into a vacation. Many companies offer vacation packages catering to dental tourists, and patients can explore exotic locations or relax by the beach between dental visits.
The goal of the dental tourist is to get dental work and an entire vacation for less than the price of dentistry where they reside.
Dental Tourism Drawbacks
Dentistry in the United States is strictly regulated. Dentists and hygienists must complete rigorous schooling programs and pass board exams to prove competency in their fields. The standards for dental care vary from country to country, and it is harder to ensure quality care while abroad. Not all foreign dental care is substandard, but there is an element of the unknown with dental tourism.
Even if a dentist claims to be “USA trained,” that could mean as little as one continuing education class. Depending on the country and its dental education standards, patients need to be aware that the dental care they receive abroad may be of a lower quality than what they would receive domestically.
Beyond governmental regulation, follow-up care can be an issue. For example, a local dental office is going to be there to adjust the bite, recement a crown, or replace a restoration. Post-operative radiographs can be taken weeks or months later to ensure proper healing if an implant is placed.
If a patient travels to another country for dental work, that dental professional will not be available if any issues or complications arise after the patient returns home. Possible complications can result in even costlier repairs, irreparable damage, pain, discomfort, disfiguration, and bone, teeth, and gingival tissue loss.1 This could also affect the quality of work provided to dental tourists. Providers, in these instances, know that the patient will soon be leaving the country, and they won’t be responsible for resolving any issues a patient may have with their completed treatment. It would be difficult for a patient to get compensation or replacement for any faulty dental work done overseas.
Logistically, dental tourism is much more complicated than local dentistry. Patients must research providers, make travel arrangements, take time off work, and navigate a foreign country. If a dental provider doesn’t speak English, the language barrier could cause a misunderstanding between the patient and provider.
American dental insurance is often not accepted outside of the United States. However, many people choose dental tourism because they are uninsured or underinsured, so this might not be much of an issue.
Dental care is one of the most popular sectors of medical tourism. An estimated 470,000 Americans traveled abroad for dental work in 2019.1 Mexico is a popular choice for American dental tourists. Treatment costs about 80% less in Mexico than in the United States.1 There’s even a city in Mexico with the nickname “Molar City.” In Los Algodones, dental offices line the streets, and American tourists are the usual patients. Popular treatments include implants, crowns, and root canals. Besides Mexico, American dental tourists often travel to Thailand, Costa Rica, and Hungary.3
It’s not just Americans who practice dental tourism. In countries where dental costs are high, patients flock to other countries where costs are lower. Government officials in the United Kingdom have a travel warning in effect for Turkey because 24 British patients have died since 2019 after medical tourism in Turkey.1,2 The deaths are most likely from surgical procedures outside of dentistry. However, the travel warning included dental procedures and noted that dental procedures are one of the most popular types of medical tourism. The term “Turkey Teeth” has been used to describe the smiles of dental tourists to Turkey whose teeth now resemble Chiclets gum.1
It is difficult to calculate the quality of dental care in each country. Factors include educational requirements, government regulation, and access to modern equipment. Even within each country, there could be a range of quality. Because of this, we cannot recommend a specific country for dental tourism.
Advice for Patients
Since most dental tourism is motivated by cost savings, be sure to talk to patients about their financial options at their current office. Third-party patient credit programs, payment plans, and purchasing an individual dental insurance plan can all make dentistry more accessible at the dental office they already use.
Some alternatives to dental tourism include dentistry at local community clinics and dental schools. The patient would receive quality dental care at a lower price with both options.
If a patient insists on taking a dental tourism trip, dental professionals should encourage patients to do extensive research. Patients should research the credentials and education of the providers and regulations for dentistry in the chosen country. Let patients know there have been many instances of negative outcomes from dental tourism.
It is ultimately up to the patient to decide their best treatment option, but dental professionals can educate them on the risks of seeking dental care abroad.
Many Americans are drawn to dental tourism due to the low prices. But sometimes you get what you pay for. In exchange for cheap prices, patients are taking a risk to their health. While there is quality dentistry in many parts of the world, it can be hard to sort through the good and the bad. Without strict government regulations, faulty dental work and poor infection control methods are possible.
Remember that dental offices catering to tourists know they won’t be held liable for anything that happens after the tourist returns home. Dental professionals should advise patients of the risks of dental tourism and encourage them to do thorough research.
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- Burkhart, G. (2023, January 24). What Dentists Need to Know About the Rise in Dental Tourism. DOCS Education. https://www.docseducation.com/blog/what-dentists-need-know-about-rise-dental-tourism
- Foreign Travel Advice Turkey. (n.d.). Gov.UK. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/turkey/health
- Does Dental Tourism Really Save Patients Money? (n.d.). American Dental Association. https://marketplace.ada.org/blog/articles/does-dental-tourism-really-save-patients-money/