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What Is Dental Tourism?

Ready for your annual vacation? Did you schedule your snorkeling excursion? Your museum tours? Your root canal? Wait … what?

When you think of tourism, you probably think of tropical beaches or famous attractions in a foreign city. But some people plan their vacation around dental tourism.

Here's what you need to know about this unique way of traveling, including the why and where of dental tourism. (Plus, the downsides.) And we'll provide ways to get lower-cost dental care without a passport.

Reasons for Dental Tourism

The Washington Post looked at data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to report on U.S. citizens' dental and medical tourism expenditures. From 2008-2018, spending increased about 29 percent, with 2018 showing $2.6 billion spent.

Why do tourists travel to foreign countries to seek dental care? A couple of reasons stand out.

Reason One: low-cost dental care

Dental care in the United States can be expensive, even with insurance. Dental tourists spend less in another country, even with travel, lodging, meals, and incidentals added to the dental bill. The Washington Post article noted an 18 percent savings that included a dental procedure plus travel expenses. The Ontario Academy of General Dentistry reports that procedure savings alone can range from 40 to 75 percent.

Dental care costs can be less expensive in foreign countries due to:

  • Lower labor and real estate (office) costs due to a lower cost of living
  • Less expensive malpractice insurance or no mandates on buying malpractice insurance
  • Much less student loan debt incurred by dentists

Reason Two: combining pleasure and unique experiences with low-cost dental care

You might be able to secure low-cost dental services in the U.S. (see below). But can you see Egyptian or Mayan pyramids, Machu Pichu, the Roman Coliseum, or giant Buddha statues?

Also, some dental destinations provide resort-style accommodations along with dental care.

You might opt to have your dental procedure when you first arrive at your location – and recover while seeing the sights. That can also allow you any follow-up visits while you're there.

Popular Destinations for Dental Tourists

Dental tourism has become so popular, there are now dental travel agencies you can find on the web. As with any travel agency, dental travel agencies specialize in finding the best spots to fit your needs.

Since many countries want people to leave with a positive experience, some dental offices promoting tourism have:

  • Upgraded their facilities and equipment
  • Hired U.S. dental school graduates
  • Started providing English-speaking staff
  • Became American Dental Association (ADA) members (Yes, the ADA has an international membership branch, the members of which are subject to the same ADA standards as in the U.S.)

In fact, when seeking a dental tourism spot, it's probably a good idea to look for an ADA membership.

Countries promoting their destinations for dental tourists include:

  • North America: Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala
  • South America: Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru
  • Africa: Egypt, Morocco
  • Asia: India, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Turkey
  • Europe: Croatia, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Poland, Serbia, Spain, The Czech Republic, Ukraine

Downsides of Dental Tourism

While dental care costs less in dental tourism destinations, that doesn't mean traveling for care is best for you. There are potential downsides – and even dangers – associated with traveling for dental procedures.

Dental Standards: Standards for foreign dental practices might not be the same as those in the U.S. For example, infection control standards can vary widely. The Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention (OSAP) provides valuable information and checklists to consult before you travel.

Language Barriers: If dental professionals in other countries speak little or no English and you don't speak the country's language, misunderstandings can occur that might be problematic. Check on the languages spoken at your dental tourism office.

Care Continuity: If you receive dental care in another country, the foreign dentist might not know your dental history. When you return, your own dentist might not know what treatment you received or why it was performed.

It's best to forward your dental records to your foreign dental office. And for a proper follow-up, forward your foreign records to your own dentist.

Issues Within Specific Countries: Check out Centers for Disease Control (CDC) information on vaccines needed, safe travel tips, and health notices for dental tourism countries. And visit the U.S. Department of State site for travel advisories and U.S. contacts once you've arrived.

Ways to Save Money for U.S. Dental Care

Affordable dental care within driving distance isn't out of reach. There are plenty of low-cost (or free) dental options in your own backyard.

Dental and Dental-Related Schools: At dental schools, future dentists provide supervised care at a reduced cost, usually based on a sliding income scale. Depending on the school, dental students offer services like root canals, crowns, and even orthodontics.

Dental hygienists are on the front line of preventative dental care. So, check out local dental hygiene schools for free or low-cost checkups and cleanings.

The ADA has a handy tool to find the nearest accredited school to fulfill your dental needs.

Free or Low-Cost Dental Health Clinics: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides a directory of clinics receiving federal funds. And your town might have state-funded or locally funded health centers, as well. Check with local social service agencies for referrals.

Promotional Rates and Student Discounts: Ask your dental provider about special rates and discounts. If your family has a unique need, your dental office might be able to help or refer you to foundations for financial support.

Plus, ask your dental office about setting up a payment plan or financing before a procedure. Even if you won't save money, it might ease your financial situation to make monthly payments rather than pay your bill in a lump sum. After all, they want their communities to be all smiles.

Your Home Oral Care Routine: Prevention is a key part of saving money at the dentist. Be sure to:

  • Brush with fluoride toothpaste twice daily.
  • Clean your teeth daily by flossing or using an interdental device.
  • Visit your dentist regularly.
  • Avoid sugary foods and drinks, especially when snacking.

Traveling for dental care might save you money and seem like a pleasurable way to combine travel and dentistry. Just make sure you do your research on dental tourism destinations – the specific dental practices and their countries. You deserve affordable, high-quality care wherever you are.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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