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Dentists Caution Against Growing Foreign Dental Tourism Trend

As health insurance costs skyrocket and more and more employers are declining to offer dental coverage as part of their compensation packages, Americans with costly dental work are feeling the pinch in their wallets. To get the care they need without breaking the bank, many patients are traveling beyond borders to undergo procedures that can often cost three or four times more in the US. But a growing number of dentists are cautioning patients that when you undergo dental procedures in some foreign clinics, you may not be getting the bargain you think you’re getting.

According to the North Carolina-based research firm Patients Beyond Borders, an estimated 500,000 patients per year cross the border to Mexico for dental care each year, and that number is on the incline. In fact, Patients Beyond Borders estimates that global dental tourism is increasing at a rate of about 15-25% a year, with most Americans heading to Mexico or Costa Rica for dental procedures, followed by Turkey, South Korea and Malaysia, to name a few. So, what’s the big deal? If patients are saving money and getting the care they need, that can’t be a bad thing, right? Not so fast, says Wilmington, North Carolina dentist Dr. Michele Simpson.

"When you cross the border to any foreign country for care, you could be putting your health at risk," Simpson said. "In the US, we have numerous safeguards in place to protect the patient from unsanitary or unsafe practices or practitioners. In foreign countries, while there may be standards, you don’t know how strictly they’re enforced, or if there is recourse at all if something goes wrong." 

Whereas in America, doctors have a litany of organizations in place to make sure the highest standards are met, not every country requires as much "That’s part of why the costs in the US are higher," Simpson said. "Because doctors must carry malpractice insurance, licenses, permits- many of these safeguards are expensive, but they’re worth the investment in your health and safety."

Another issue Simpson says patients may encounter when receiving foreign care is the language barrier. If you are injured during a procedure or begin feeling ill after a procedure, it may be harder to obtain emergency care if you don’t speak the local language or aren’t familiar with where hospitals are or how to request an ambulance. Here in the US we teach children at a young age to call 911 in case of an emergency, but in a foreign country, not knowing the equivalent could cost you your life.

"And then there’s the problem of what happens after you get home," Simpson said. "You’re back in the US with your new crown and two weeks later it crumbles while you’re eating lunch. What do you do? It may not be easy or affordable for you to hop another flight to Malaysia to have the crown remade by the same dentist- and would you even want to?" 

Many patients who have faced similar scenarios have no choice but to get the work done at the same original price they were quoted by their American dentist, on top of what they already paid abroad. Worst of all, in most cases, there’s probably no way to get a refund, since many patients must pay cash when undergoing procedures in foreign countries, and many foreign dentists won’t issue a refund without seeing the damage in person. Thankfully, many foreign dentists rely on international referrals and are willing to redo faulty work, but getting the time off in addition to travel expenses and possibly lodging to return to a foreign country on short notice may not be feasible for some patients. Especially those who sought foreign dental services for financial reasons in the first place.

So, what can patients who simply cannot afford the upfront cost of expensive dental procedures up front and on short notice? Simpson suggests finding a local dentist who accepts financing. 

"Some practices offer their own payment plans," Simpson said. "Many are now offering financing through private medical financing companies." 

The benefit to companies like these, such as CareCredit, is that they offer patients a stable monthly payment. Many offer a major reduction in interest if patients can pay off the debt ahead of schedule, a great option if you are expecting a bonus or tax refund before the cutoff date But what if you can’t wait that long for the dental procedure. Ultimately, Simpson suggests before resorting to putting your health at risk by rolling the dice on a foreign dental procedure to speak with your dentist. 

"Don’t automatically assume nothing can be done," Simpson said. "Speak to your dentist and see what your options are before booking a foreign procedure. Most dentists would rather work with you than allow you to risk your health by sending you to an unregulated clinic." 

As for those who have no choice but to seek foreign care, Simpson cautions patients to do their homework. Check with organizations like Patients Beyond Borders before selecting a doctor. They can provide you with a list of reputable doctors in foreign countries and hopefully eliminate a little of the guesswork out of choosing a practitioner.

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