Last summer, I had a $2,000 root canal treatment from a top-notch endodontist in my home state of New Jersey. The procedure was supposed to save my tooth: a rear molar on the bottom, left side of my mouth.
Instead, my tooth cracked after the root canal.
I was then told I’d need major dental surgery, including a dental implant, a multi-step procedure at a cost of about $5,500.
Instead, I opted to take my family on a nine-day all-inclusive vacation to Cancun, Mexico.
Sound crazy? Not when you consider that I also had dental surgery on the trip, which cost $1,850. I used frequent flyer miles to find a follow-up trip, but even if I’d paid for that ticket out of pocket, I still would have come out far ahead of the $5,500 I would have paid to get the surgery done in the U.S.
And even with airfares, hotel and food—for myself, my husband and youngest daughter—I still came out way ahead financially by being willing to get medical treatment outside the United States. Plus, it was a lot more fun.
The number of folks who think like me are growing: According to Patients Beyond Borders, an estimated 1.4 million Americans sought medical care beyond America’s borders in 2017, with Mexico, Costa Rica, India and Malaysia as some of the top destinations.
In terms of services, medical travelers seek out a range of needs, from cosmetic work and cancer treatments to orthopedics and even heart transplants.
But one of the top health reasons that Americans go to other countries is for dental work of all kind, including general, restorative and cosmetic dental procedures.
In part that’s because many Americans lack dental insurance. If you’re over 65, you likely know that Original Medicare generally doesn’t cover dentistry at all.
And in Mexico, dental services cost about 65% less than in the U.S.
If you’re willing to try this money-saving approach to dentistry, here are four key things to know, based on my personal experience and research.
You don’t have to speak a foreign language
Assuming you’re not a polyglot, you may be concerned about the lack of ability to communicate with your dental provider.
Since I’m pretty proficient in Spanish, I didn’t worry about not being able to communicate with my dentists.
But even if I wasn’t, I likely wouldn’t have needed to sweat it: Many overseas hospitals are staffed in part by physicians and other health professionals who were trained in U.S. hospitals and speak excellent English.
One hospital in India even has 200 U.S.-trained board-certified surgeons.
In fact, at the practice where I was treated, the entire staff spoke English—from the receptionists who greeted me and the workers in the billing department, to the technician who took my X-rays and the dental surgeon who operated on me.
So feel free to make English speakers a requirement of your patronage.
Checking accreditation is a must
Whether or not you are familiar with dental tourism, there are scores of adventurous and cost-conscious people who have traveled this path before you. Getting medical services outside of the U.S. won’t turn you into a medical guinea pig.
With that said, every country has its own medical standards, and levels of oversight may differ than what is customary in the United States.
So it’s important to be extra diligent with your research and only select accredited facilities and certified specialists.
Some extreme cases highlight the potential pitfalls of picking the wrong healthcare provider. Case in point: In November, a Dallas woman went to Mexico for plastic surgery and wound up on life support.
Since 1998, the Joint Commission (formerly called the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals) has been evaluating, inspecting and accrediting hospitals outside the United States.
By 2017, 800 foreign hospitals had been accredited, and that number is growing by 20% per year.
The Joint Commission International operates a website called WorldHospitalSearch.org where you can find accredited medical facilities by location.
Additionally, the American Board of Family Medicine maintains a global physician directory of licensed or board certified healthcare specialists. It’s also worth checking whether a dentist or doctor has been certified by a local board in the country you plan to visit.
And several major U.S. medical centers, including Harvard, Boston University, Johns Hopkins, and the Cleveland Clinic, have established hospitals and clinics abroad, in an effort to capitalize on medical tourism. You can expect professionals at those centers to provide the same level of care as they do in the U.S.
You can find Yelp-style reviews
If finding an international dentist or doctor seems like a daunting task, you might be surprised to learn that locating and researching a medical professional abroad is almost as straight-forward as checking a home contractor’s reviews on Yelp or reading a hotel’s reviews on Trip Advisor.
Comparison websites like DentalDepartures.com, which I used, provide consumer reviews about dentists. This makes it far easier for Americans seeking dentists to research and locate qualified, licensed or certified professionals in various regions of the world.
You can even get turnkey assistance on everything from making your dentist appointments to handling travel arrangements.
My Mexican dentist office offered free transportation as part of their offering to medical tourists like me. So each time I went, they picked up me and returned me to my hotel at no cost. They also offered free roundtrip service to and from the airport.
The technology is just as good—or better
You might expect that a non-U.S. country wouldn’t be able to match your home our with regard to technology. You’d be wrong.
During my dental visits to Mexico, I was struck by the high-tech, ultra modern facilities.
For example, the 3-D X-ray machine used to take panoramic images of my teeth was more sophisticated than the X-ray machines used by my dentists in New Jersey.
And the dental implant my surgeon in Mexico used is a high-end titanium implant. At a recent dental cleaning back home, even my own dentist remarked that the quality of the dental work I received in Mexico appeared to be excellent.
Overall, I’m very glad I gave dental tourism a try. While I know it’s not the right option for everyone, if you need more affordable dental care, it’s definitely one to consider.