Research Summary: Trials and tribulations of dental tourism

A summary of: Turner, L. Cross-border dental care: ‘dental tourism’ and patient mobility. Br Dent J 204, 553–554 (2008).

What is cross-border dental care?

Cross-border dental care is also termed as ‘dental tourism’ a new phenomenon where an increasing number of patients are travelling across national borders for dental care and treatment. For example, individuals from the United Kingdom obtain dental procedures in such countries as Bulgaria or Turkey, while Americans cross the borders of Arizona, California, and Texas to seek dental care in Mexico and Peru. Similarly, Australian dental tourism companies promote Bangkok and Phuket in Thailand as inexpensive sites for dental treatment.

Patient mobility is increasing…why?

The reduced price overseas for dental treatments is one of the main causes of the increased patient mobility that we see today. ‘Dental tourism’ is driven by numerous factors. These factors include the high cost of local care, delays in obtaining access to local dentists, competent care at many international clinics, inexpensive air travel, and the internet’s capacity to link ‘customers’ to ‘sellers’ of health-related services. Lack of access to affordable and timely local care plays a significant role in prompting patients to cross borders and receive dental care outside their local communities.

Alongside this, dental clinics around the world use the internet to advertise procedures to international patients. Living in an era of social media influence, dental tourism companies utilise social media platforms to entice patients with their ‘all inclusive deals’ that comprise of dental procedures with pre-established prices, hotel rooms, air fare, ground transportation, ‘VIP treatment’, restaurant reservations, and side trips to popular tourist destinations. Many patients return home satisfied with the quality of care they have received elsewhere. ‘Word of mouth’ promotion prompts other patients to consider travelling for treatment, as well as social media reviews and vlogs. Cross-border dental care can be beneficial as some dental tourists will obtain timely, affordable, high quality dental care. However, this is not always the case.

The dangers of cross-border dentistry 

The danger of seeking inexpensive cross-border dental care is that sometimes low cost can result in low quality and substandard care. The education of dentists, training of dental assistants, regulation of dental clinics, accreditation and licensing of dentists is highly varied across the globe. Patients must complete full research into the dental clinic they wish to travel to and prevent bad experiences and poor quality of care.

However, the varied quality of care is not the only downside to cross-border dentistry, but also some patients will find that travelling for treatment undermines continuity of care. If complications develop some patients will find it difficult to return to international clinics for further treatment and not all local dentists will be willing to treat problems associated with care provided by dentists in another country. Therefore, it is important that patients are fully informed of the risks and benefits, and the longevity of each dental treatment both home and abroad. 

Despite these risks, lack of access to local dentists and the high cost of local dental care will result in increased numbers of ‘dental tourists’ and cross-border dental care.

Research Summary Written by: Jess Onwubiko, University of Manchester – BDS 1

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