Why ‘Dental Tourism’ Doesn’t Work.

My inspiration for this week’s blog is the recent uptick of patients I’ve seen who have experienced unfortunate complications associated with dental implant therapy performed abroad as part of ‘Dental Tourism’ trips. Whether it’s to evaluate implant failure, implant fracture, bone infection or a broken jaw, more and more patients now seek me out to help remedy shoddy implant work performed abroad. While I am, of course, grateful for opportunity to treat these patients, I am also deeply concerned about the growing trend of ‘Dental Tourism’ and the negative effect that it can have on the health and financial well-being of Canadians. Here are my answers to some frequently-asked questions about ‘Dental Tourism’:

What is ‘Dental Tourism’?

Similar to ‘Medical Tourism’, ‘Dental Tourism’ is the act of travelling abroad to take advantage of relatively low-cost dental treatments available. Typically, the process involves flying to a third-world country, staying for a couple weeks and having dental treatment for about 30-50% of the cost of comparable treatment in Canada.

What’s wrong with taking a 2-week vacay and getting cheap dentistry? Sounds like a great deal!

Superficially, ‘Dental Tourism’ sounds great – you save 50-70% on dental treatment while enjoying a two week vacation in an exotic destination! The unfortunate reality, though, is that you pay for what you get and, more-often-then-not, the treatment rendered abroad fails, which carries grave physical, emotional and financial consequences for the patient.

Why are implants placed abroad more likely to fail than implants placed in Canada?

The success rate for implants placed in North America by board-certified oral and maxillofacial surgeons remains very high – somewhere around 97-98%. There are several reasons why the success rate of implants placed on ‘Dental Tourism’ trips is significantly lower: First, the standard of care abroad is often different from what you would expect in Canada. In Ontario, for example, both the regulatory body that governs dentists and oral surgeons and Health Canada ensures that everyone who places dental implants abides by regulations that are meant to protect the public, especially those with respect to doctor training, infection control and material selection. Oftentimes, these regulations don’t exist abroad, and practitioners are free to do whatever makes them the most money – even if it means compromising infection control standards or using implants that are (literally) made in someone’s basement. Second, language barriers between a) the patient and the ‘Dental Tourism’ practitioner and b) the ‘Dental Tourism’ practitioner and the patient’s dentist in Canada often impede necessary communication between the parties. Miscommunication between the surgeon and restoring dentist regarding the ‘parts’ and treatment plan is a recipe for disaster; and the risk of this is increased if the practitioners do not speak the same language. Finally, dental implants placed abroad are seldom (adequately) followed-up. All dental implants require periodic follow-up by dental professionals to ensure continued health. Implants placed on 2-week ‘Dental Tourism’ trips are almost-never followed-up and thus fail more often because problems are only noticed when it’s too late.

What are some of the adverse consequences of ‘Dental Tourism’?

When implant treatment fails, the physical, emotional and financial toll on the patient can be devastating and corrective implant treatment and more expense is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Jaw bone infection, jaw fracture and acquiring a communicable blood-borne disease are all possible outcomes when infection control and materials regulations are compromised. Moreover, the adverse psychological and emotional effect that treatment failure has on some patients can be profound.

You’re painting a pretty grim picture of ‘Dental Tourism’ but what can be done for me here in Ontario if I cannot afford often-expensive dental implant treatment?

Options vary on a case-by-case basis but may include payment plans, being referred to an academic institution where students or residents do treatment at a significantly reduced cost or having some of the reconstructive treatment done in the hospital and covered by provincial health insurance.

At the end of the day, the old adage holds true when it comes to ‘Dental Tourism’: ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!’ Do your homework, talk to people you trust and consult with a certified specialist in Canada before making a decision that could have a devastating effect on your life and health!