Is it safe to get dental work done outside the U.S.?

It sure sounds great: get your dental work done on the cheap and see the sites, all for less than what the dental work would have cost in the US. But what are you really buying with "dental tourism"?

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Hi, I’m Dr. B, practicing functional dentist for 35 years. I graduated from the Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco, CA in 1987 and am a member of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM), Academy of General Dentistry (Chicago, IL), American Academy for Oral Systemic Health (AAOSH), and Dental Board of California. I'm on a mission to empower people everywhere with the same evidence-based, easy-to-understand dental health advice that my patients get. Learn more about Dr. B

Q: I'm going to Costa Rica on a surfing trip with my buddies next week and since my dentist told me I needed a crown, I'm thinking of having it done there since I've heard it's a quarter of the cost. Is it safe to get my crown done in Costa Rica or in any other foreign country for that matter?

A: Many people take this risk every year and it’s increasingly popular due to the status of the economy.

It sure sounds great: get your dental work done on the cheap and see the sites, all for less than what the dental work would have cost in the US.

But what are you really buying with dental tourism?

The activity of seeking dental care outside of the US to save money is called dental tourism, and is more common that you would think. Several of my patients have had dental work done in India, China, Mexico, Romania, and yes, even Hungary.

So, which country has good dental care? Nice try! I can’t really say for sure, but this article can certainly help guide you in your thinking.?Dental Tourism is not for the faint of heart, and requires some courage, planning, and most of all, research.

Why are the prices for dental work lower in some countries?

There are many reasons, among them currency exchange advantages, less local professional restrictions, and fewer barriers to becoming a dentist. Materials, such as non-precious gold, can certainly make a crown cheaper.

But here’s the kicker: It may be cheaper because a completely different procedure is being performed.

Here at home, and sometimes abroad, the standard of care is determined by the standard that would be exercised by the reasonably prudent professional in that line of work. This is called the standard of care and can vary from country to country.

Obviously, you want you work done in a country that is equal to or exceeds the standard of care that you are used to. We certainly take for granted the standard of living and care in this country.

Going the Route of Dental Tourism

If you do decide to go the route of dental tourism and get that crown done in Costa Rica, I recommend doing your research first.

The training and experience of the dentist is paramount, but so is the environment in which he or she practices.

Consider simple things like the water that is being used in Mexico. This water will be used to irrigate an open wound after an extraction or implant site.

It goes without saying that the standard of water quality in Mexico is not as high as it is in the US. Some dental clinics can filter the water, and I highly recommend you check with the dental clinic in Costa Rica to see what their water filtration procedures are like.

What kind of gold alloy is going to be used in that crown about to be cemented in your mouth? Will it cause metal poisoning down the road? Is it high in nickel content? Is it a high noble, noble, or base metal?? What if there is a medical emergency due to the administration of local anesthesia? How close is the local hospital? What is the standard of care for hospitals in that country? There go the savings of having it done on the cheap in a foreign country. It can easily be more expensive in the long run if things go wrong. I have seen and treated dental work from all over the world. I’ve removed rexillium?dental bridges in patients’ mouths that became red hot and produced toxic metallic dust. I’ve removed teeth that were slowly killing the surrounding bone due to a toxic root canal filling material, and I’ve actually measured radioactivity in metal taken out of the mouth.

For every horror story I have seen, I have seen some successful dental work done in other countries. Dental work in France and Germany come to mind, however, the cost was not much different than that in the US. These were dental emergencies during vacations that were well handled by the local dentist.

You could see an American trained dentist in Costa Rica or a dentist that is seen by the American diplomats, and probably get good work done. It’s a crap shoot in countries with fewer restrictions and lower barriers to becoming a dentist, and your chances are safer in countries with more formally trained professionals. Another thing to consider is the politics of health care in the country. Countries with nationalized health services are not based on a preventative model; that is, instead of saving the tooth, they will remove it.

Insurance Companies and Dental Tourism

Now here’s a scary twist to the story. If there’s a way to save money, you can bet the insurance companies will be interested.
American insurance companies are beginning to pay benefits and are adding an “international treatment option” to their US dental plans. It’s not the “emergency care while on business travel” option, it’s a plan that will pay benefits outside of the US if you choose to have your dentistry done, say, in the Phillippines. The insurance company will contract with specific providers in these countries to try to guarantee quality. Many people who choose to make use of international treatment options have family in foreign countries and have access to dentists in those countries. Maybe the insurance companies think that utilization of the plan will be lower if they do seek care in countries outside of the US.

Dental Tourism Essential Questions

If you are beginning to feel nervous, then I’ve accomplished my goal of making you wary. Here are a few absolutely necessary questions to research and think hard about before you have dental work done in Costa Rica or any foreign country.

  • Who’s the professional doing the work?
  • Where was he or she trained?
  • What is the standard of care for the doctor?
  • What is the standard of care in the country?
  • What metals will be used in the dental work? Are they toxic?
  • Does the country have a nationalized dental service (run and funded by the government)?
  • If something goes wrong, are you willing and able to go back to see your dentist in that foreign country?

In any case, I would be very wary of traveling any further than you care to drive a few times per month. And pick your dentist the old fashion way, by word of mouth!

Mark Burhenne DDS

Learn More: Functional Dentistry: Everything You Need to Know