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(Published: 2009-11-15)

A trip to the dentist takes on new meaning these days. Last year over a quarter of a million Americans packed their suitcases and their toothbrushes and traveled to foreign countries for dental work. Your average tourist might not equate a vacation with serious dental work, but my friend Joan managed to reconcile the oxymoronic concept AND save a few bucks.

Joan’s dental adventure began when a hearty sneeze dislodged a bridge out of her mouth—never to be seen again. After consulting with her dentist, she decided she didn’t want to have another bridge put in, opting for implants instead. She also needed a crown replacement on a molar tooth. She was stunned to learn that her estimated total cost would be between $7,500 and $9,000.

Joan’s dental policy didn’t cover the work she wanted, so she began investigating alternatives. A timely article in the AARP Magazine titled “50 Thrifty Ideas” caught her interest. Readers were asked to submit suggestions for how they were economizing in the midst of the recession. Idea #9 was “Cross the border for a doctor.”

AARP recommended the website Joan says it’s a lot like an Angie’s List for medical needs. She found it efficient and simple to use. She contacted 5 dental clinics in Costa Rica directly from the website, and within 24 hours she had responses from all 5 clinics. One dentist even called her at home to see if she had any questions.

The cost savings were amazing. Estimates for the work needed ranged from between $1,900 to $2,400. She used frequent flyer miles for the flight, and the clinic she selected recommended a lovely apartment hotel 8 blocks away in the heart of San Jose, for only $60/night. Joan spent a week in Costa Rica and managed to squeeze in a trip to the rain forest, a coffee plantation tour, a little shopping, some pool lounging, and some great, inexpensive dinners, in between her trips back and forth to the clinic for her dental work.

Dental Tourism is a growing travel trend that promises low cost, high quality dental work to cost-conscious and/or uninsured consumers. It’s part of a larger trend called Medical Tourism. 800,000 Americans traveled overseas for health care in 2008. From face-lifts in Panama to heart surgery in India, from dental implants in Costa Rica to hip replacements in Thailand, medical tourism has become a $60 billion enterprise.

Interestingly, dental bridges and bonding ranked #1 and #2 on a list of most sought-after procedures for Americans traveling abroad for medical care. The latest twist on this trend is that families are turning an annual vacation into a cost-effective checkup for their brood. At the very least, it should make for interesting “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essays.

Most dentists are trained in the US and use the same equipment as American dentists. They rely heavily on word of mouth (pun intended) from satisfied customers. Their websites include testimonials, and stateside references are provided. Joan was 100% satisfied with the care she received, and thrilled to save thousands of dollars. She met dozens of expats and fellow Americans on her dental adventure, and says she wouldn’t hesitate to go back.

She also recommends a very nice restaurant, El Chicote, where she celebrated completion of her dental work with a wonderful steak dinner. Every single bite was delicious!

Open wide

Medical Tourism

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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