Tip Sheets

Dental tourism: Americans leaving the country for oral health care

Mary Otto


By Mary Otto

Experts say many thousands of Americans are now going abroad for dental care. The growing phenomenon of dental tourism is believed to make up a sizable portion of the worldwide multibillion-dollar medical tourism market.

While exact numbers are impossible to find, and even estimates are scarce, the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions estimated that 1.6 million Americans would traveled abroad for all types of medical care in 2012 with dental treatments heading the list of procedures sought.

In the U.S. a number of forces are said to be driving this trend. Many aging Americans lack dental benefits. Since they are paying out-of-pocket, they are willing to comparison-shop for care. Air travel has become cheaper. A growing number of online resources, publications and services are available to consumers interested in learning about foreign clinics and arranging for travel abroad.

Seattle-based Dental Departures links dental travelers with dental clinics in 29 countries. The company offers virtual tours of clinics around the world on its website.

Chapel Hill, NC-based Patients Beyond Borders offers a wide range of print and digital resources to medical and dental travelers.

Clinics located in countries including Mexico, Costa Rica and Colombia seeking to attract American dental tourists often quote prices far lower than those charged by American dentists for procedures such as implants, crowns and full-mouth restorations.

Deloitte estimates that dental services in Mexico cost only 25 to 35 percent of what they cost in the United States.

Some clinics demonstrate the high quality of their services by gaining accreditation from the American Association for the Accreditation of Ambulatory Surgery Facilities International (AAAASFI) or the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Health Care (AAAHC).

According to a 2013 study commissioned by the American Dental Association (ADA), 37 percent of Americans would consider going abroad for medical or dental care if the cost was significantly lower.

At the same time, ADA officials caution patients to be aware that standards of care may differ in foreign countries.

Some safety experts also offer cautionary advice, stressing that dental travelers should diligently research any clinic they plan to visit. Where did the providers receive their training and licenses? Are proper sterilization, safety and emergency protocols in place? Is the water used in the clinic filtered and  tested? Do the materials used in the  procedures meet American standards? How is follow-up care provided? What happens in the case of complications?

The Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention (OSAP),  a nonprofit that works for the safe delivery of oral health care worldwide, provides a guide for seeking care abroad.