Dental Care, America’s Unspoken Health Crisis (Pt 2): How baby boomers can avoid going bust

Wed, Apr 21, 2010

Healthcare, Jeff Apton, Lifestyle, Money

(Author’s note: this was originally planned as a 2 part series, but there is so much information. So we are adding a Part 3, coming soon)

In Part 1 of this series we looked at factors surrounding the escalating cost of dental care and its burden on patients without dental insurance (for expensive procedures like implants, most of us).  The focus of Part 2,  presented here, is to provide strategies for saving money when the cost of care goes through the roof,  First, the best thing you can do to save money on expensive dental is to spend it now. Regular dental visits, cleanings and attention to small problems before they become big ones is the best strategy. Still, heredity, lifestyle and disease has made some of us prime candidates for big time dental work. Short of extractions and full dentures, what can the financially-strapped patient do?  Let’s start with the most obvious.

Bargaining and Dental Schools

Many dental practices are slow these days, so your timing is good. Ask your dentist to give you a better price after the Novocaine wears off.  Dentists don’t like to bargain (why would they?)  and their marketing gurus have taught them to counter-offer financing, often with a “no interest” teaser.  Extended payment plans  are not reduced fees. They just pain spread over time, often 12 months. The piper must be paid, and after a set period, finance fees usually kick in. So ask. You may not save thousands, but every little bit helps.

Dental schools can be a great place to receive treatment. Students hone their skills under the watchful eye of experienced teachers. When the work is done correctly the first time,  you have a great experience. The problem is that there is no way to gauge students’ skills until after the fact. Treatment at a dental school is a money saver to be sure, but the time commitment can be deadly. You may wind up having multiple appointments, even for a simple dental.  A hygienist we know describes it, “A basic cleaning took some patients as much as 8-12 hours and three separate visits.  This is not a viable option for most people who could go to their dentists and have the same work done in a one-hour session.  I can only imagine the time involved in having more serious work completed.  You will need to decide if multiple trips to the school and hours in the chair while a dentist-in-training tests his skills is worth the savings.

With the cost of care going up annually, many Americans are pursuing a different alternativee for quality care.  Combining a vacation with a trip to the dentist can save them large sums of money, and might even make a trip to the dentist fun (well, almost fun).

Dental tourism

Traveling abroad for care is part of a growing trend called “medical tourism.” Whether leaving the US for a hip replacement or a dental implant, the patient leaves the U.S. to receive care from qualified practitioners abroad at substantial savings.

Of all the different medical tourism procedures available, dental tourism is the most popular because:

  • quality dental care is widely available around the world
  • most patients pay for dentistry largely or completely out-of-pocket in the US
  • savings will be substantial
  • dental procedures are generally minor compared to many medical  procedures.

After treatment, dental patients can be true “tourists”, and can enjoy a relaxing post-treatment vacation. A patient who goes to India for a joint replacement is unlikely to be touring for some time.

Quality dental care is available outside the US

The “American-centric” myth that quality care is only available in the States is exactly that.

“Every year we bring to NYU 110 dentists from 33 countries, train them in advanced procedures, and then they go home. There is no reason to assume the quality of care is any lower overseas.” Dr. Stewart Hirsch, associate dean of New York University College of Dentistry “

Schools outside the US produce their quotas of qualified dentists as well. Practitioners around the world have access to the same information, the same training and the same equipment. As in so many areas of science and medicine, the global economy has leveled the playing field.

The American Dental Association (ADA) has a vested interest in protecting their US-based members, and has recognized that the global economy poses a threat. Still,  they do not dispute that quality care is available abroad.  How could they? Large numbers of international dentists belong to the Association, attend its meetings and receive training through their member institutions. Of approximately 15,000 dental professionals attending the annual ADA meeting, about 1,800 are from outside the US.

Americans traveling for dental care

More and more Americans are going outside our borders for dental care. A recent New York Times article quoted a source that said 40% of all medical tourists are traveling for dental care. When the total number of all medical procedures is considered, that percent becomes even more impressive.  The total number of dental travelers is difficult to pinpoint but estimates range from approximately 200,00 to 750,000 annually. Most reports (including those of the ADA) project that number to be on the rise. The think tank Deloitte Center for Health Solutions projects a 35% annual growth rate despite, or perhaps because of, the current economy.

Examples of Savings

Savings on dental work depend upon a number of factors including the country visited, the procedure, materials used and the dentist performing the procedure. Dental implants are the most frequently requested procedure by dental travelers because of their costliness in the US.  As Figure 1 demonstrates savings on dentistry can be considerable for extensive work.

Fig 1: Implants

In Fig 1, an implant and crown in the US are estimated to cost $ 4,000 (this can be more or less depending on location).  Travel expenses are variable and include the flight and a week with moderate accommodations in Panama City, a top location for dental work. An implant patient will make 2 trips, the first for surgery and again for the crowns placed on the implant.

For patients needing less work, savings of even one or two thousand dollars may pay for treatment and a vacation, as in Fig 2. Taking care of a couple of root canals and spending the rest of the week touring can be pretty nice.

Fig 2: Root Canals

Are patients satisfied with care abroad?

This survey by the leading non-profit group in the medical tourism field, the Medical Tourism Association, looked willingness of patients to consider repeat care overseas. The percentage who said they would, 88%,  speaks highly for their level of satisfaction. A  dental-specific survey, revealed high levels of satisfaction among the thousands of dental tourists questioned. Patients who traveled abroad to receive treatment had a average satisfaction rating of 84%, a similar percentage to the general medical tourist surveyed by the MTA.

Fig 3: Patient satisfaction

Part 3: What you need to know (coming soon)

Interested in knowing more about dental travel?  In the third and final part, we will share tips and secrets: where to go for treatment, locating the best dentists, and how to save time and money.

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12 Responses to “Dental Care, America’s Unspoken Health Crisis (Pt 2): How baby boomers can avoid going bust”

  1. smileplanners says:

    To your point about 110 NYU Dental Students from 33 countries, I can say that Smile Planners facilitates for dental clinics in Thailand where many of the dentists have trained in the US, Europe, UK or Australia. In order to provide as much information as possible Smile Planners lists all the clinics on the site and provides bios for the implant dentists

    Not all facilitators list the clinics or dentists they work with.

  2. athenacsr says:

    Good points!
    However for immediate dental care, it is still important that you can count on a local provider. Good thing I can trust my dental provider in New York.

  3. Joel_Jackson09 says:

    It is true that many patients travel just for good dental care. In Chicago, dental implants are very popular for replacing lost tooth. Every month, many patients from different places visit Chicago just to find a good cosmetic dentist (Chicago based).

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