A $9K Dental Bill Got Me to Check Out Medical Tourism. Here’s What I Found

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Costa Rican Dentist Alberto Meza, right, applies cosmetic veneers for patient Alison Battle at Meza Dental Care in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Costa Rican Dentist Alberto Meza, right, applies cosmetic veneers for patient Alison Battle at Meza Dental Care in San Jose, Costa Rica on June 26, 2009. Battle said she elected to have the dental work done in Costa Rica because she was able to save substantially compared to what she would have had to pay in the U.S. Kent Gilbert/AP Photo

Even with medical and dental insurance, the out-of-pocket expenses for surgeries and treatments can cost a fortune.

For instance, I’m about to complete an extensive series of non-cosmetic oral surgeries. The only thing less fun than the procedures themselves are the price tags that come with them.

$9,000.

Yep, that’s three zeros.

Since I don’t have nine grand in loose pocket change lurking in my sofa cushions, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I was going to pay for this periodontal joyride.

Medical and dental tourism kept coming up in my research, and, I admit, I was intrigued.

What Is Medical and Dental Tourism?

Medical and dental tourism is a catchall term referring to travel outside of a person’s home country for medical or dental care and treatment.

For American citizens, medical travel can be as logistically simple as popping across the U.S./Mexico border for a quick afternoon procedure.

But depending on the type and extent of work someone needs done, it could also involve a faraway visit to somewhere like Thailand or India.

International health travel website Patients Beyond Borders estimates that in 2017 about 1.4 million Americans will cross the border to spend an average of $ 3,800 to $6,000 per visit to seek medical or dental care.

Some of the most popular destinations include:

  • Costa Rica
  • Malaysia
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan
  • Turkey

How Much Money Can Medical and Dental Tourism Save?

With so many variables, it’s tough to pin down exactly how much money medical travel can potentially save you.

First, it depends on what you have done and in what country. Then there’s how much of the money you save is offset by the cost of travel and lodging.

To get a rough idea of the savings involved (or not), I did some calculations based on a dental crown replacement I had done earlier this year.

  • The total cost of the procedure by my local dentist was $1,115 before my insurance benefits were applied. My total out-of-pocket expenses after insurance came to $453.

To get a feel for how much a more invasive procedure would cost, I ran some numbers on the costs involved in getting a hip replaced.

From cost to safety concerns, there are a lot of things to consider before investing your money and health into medical or dental tourism.

While it may save you a considerable bundle of cash or wait-time, the option isn’t right for everyone.

Advantages of Medical and Dental Tourism

According to the World Health Organization, people choose medical travel for several reasons, including:

  • Access to the most advanced technology: 40%
  • Better quality care for medically-necessary procedures: 32%
  • Quicker access to medically-necessary procedures: 15%
  • Lower cost care for medically-necessary procedures: 9%
  • Lower cost care for elective procedures: 4%

“Medical tourism has its advantages in that you have access to better technology and faster medical care at a lower cost than what you may have available in your own proximity,” said Dr. Constantine George, who is a dual board-certified doctor of internal medicine and pediatrics. “However, be sure your doctor or specialist follows up with you or your local primary care doctor to ensure there are no possible complications.”

Disadvantages of Medical and Dental Tourism

The Center for Disease Control says that while “the specific risks of medical tourism depend on the area being visited and the procedures performed,” people who are considering medical tourism should keep a few general issues in mind, including:

  • Language barriers and communication difficulties for patients visiting countries where they don’t speak the local language
  • Medication may be counterfeit or of poor quality
  • Flying after surgery can increase the risk of post-surgical problems  

“Being away from the specialist who performed the procedure may be a disadvantage in that they can’t assess the follow up as accurately, and this responsibility will fall into the hands of your doctor at home,” noted Dr. George.

Tips and Strategies for Medical and Dental Tourism

Whether you’re traveling abroad for an elective or medically-necessary procedure, keep these tips in mind.

1. Cheaper Isn’t Always Better

“Patients should always do research before deciding where to get treatment, not base it just on the cheaper option,” said prosthodontist Dr. Simon Flikier of the Flikier Dental Institute in Costa Rica.

Dr. Flikier recommends asking lots of questions and requesting a complete breakdown of prices for the procedure from every medical office you speak with to “make sure you are comparing apples to apples.”

2. Choose Your Location Well

Don’t try to combine your medical travel plans with your bucket-list vacation dreams. Sure, you may end up with time to check out the local scenery and get to know a new country, but your medical or dental needs take precedence over that far-off beach getaway you’ve always wanted to take.

In fact, you may be better off closer to home. ‘You want to choose a doctor that is relatively close to where you are,” noted Dr. Flikier. “Keep in mind some treatments require more than one visit,” so costs may add up quickly.

3. Double-Check Credentials

Be sure to check the licensing requirements in the country where you’re considering traveling. Look for organizations that aren’t affiliated with any particular hospital or medical practice for objective information about checking doctor credentials (similar to the American Medical Association and American Dental Association in the U.S..)

“In Costa Rica, all dentists have to be registered in the Colegio de Cirujanos Dentistas (National College of Dental Surgeons),” explained Dr. Flikier. “This guarantees that a doctor has an active license, [and] it also shows if they are trained and qualified to practice a particular specialty.”

Be sure to check out the CDC website for even more tips and advice on going abroad for medical and dental care.

A Word of Caution

From lower costs to shorter wait times, there are plenty of reasons to consider medical and dental tourism as a treatment option — but the risks can be significant.

Dr. Mark Burhenne, a family dentist and creator of AskTheDentist.com, acknowledges the potential financial benefits of medical travel but also offers some words of caution.

“The dentist knows that you’ll never be back. It’s such a great distance and cost to travel. If you can see them once and everything gets done properly the first time, then great — there’s a savings — but that’s rarely happening in my experience.

“In the U.S., the threat of malpractice is a great deterrent, lawyers are everywhere, and if work isn’t done correctly, chances are the dentist will get caught,” he adds.

Dr. Burhenne offers a final recommendation to anyone considering traveling outside of the U.S for a procedure.

“If you were to do it, I would stay in the country for six-plus months so that you can build a relationship with the dentist and go back for follow-ups.

$9,000 Later…

Long before I dove into the research for this story, I made the decision to get my dental work done locally.

I was sorely tempted to head across the border, but between the travel expenses and multiple visits the treatment would require, it simply made more financial sense for me to stay put (plus, there’s something to be said for recovering on your very own couch).

I was fortunate to be able to put the payment on a credit card with a fairly-low interest rate (something we don’t generally advise) because I anticipate being able to pay it off quickly.

If that’s not an option, you may need to come up with other ways to deal with unexpected medical bills.

I won’t discount medical travel in the future if the need arises, but I plan to have perfect health and live to be 120 so hopefully it will never come up. (Right? Right.)

If it does, though, I’ll take the advice I got from these medical professionals to heart to make an informed — and smart — decision.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She had to be on a liquid diet for a few days after the procedures and has grown to detest soup. All the soup on the planet.