Dental tourism: reason to smile?

It seems that more and more people, Canadians especially — Albertans especially, especially — are opting to take something called “dental vacations.”

It seems that more and more people, Canadians especially — Albertans especially, especially — are opting to take something called “dental vacations.”

Now, notice, I didn’t say “mental” vacations, wherein people take a stress-relieving holiday for a much-needed and much-deserved mental health break. No, what I’m referring to is the increasing trend in the truly questionable field of something called “medical tourism.”

Yikes. Even the term itself sounds a tad south of healthy, doesn’t it?

It’s true though. According to a recent magazine article I read in (where else?) a dentist’s office, more and more of us “snowbirds” are flocking to warm, sun-soaked, blue-watered vacation destinations seeking out one thing: cheap margaritas.

No sorry, what I meant to say was cheap dentistry. Margaritas, I believe, are the complimentary medicinal painkillers included before and after each vacation dental treatment procedure.

It seems a “growing number of Albertans in particular” are latching onto the idea that, hey, I can go to Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru or other similarly lovely foreign country for a little holiday time and while I’m there, I’ll just pop on over to the local dental shop in that tent over there and get that molar implant that I’ve been putting off for a decade or so.

Why not combine a little comfort with a little torture? Why not punish yourself for going to a beautiful beach and bikini-infested paradise by making sure to put in a little suffering time in the old dental chair while you’re there?

Life is about balance, right? A refreshing dip in the ocean here; an excruciating root canal there.

Palm trees, sand and surf one minute; needles, Novocain and grinding tooth drills the next.

No, as usual, my friends, it’s about one thing and one thing only: the margaritas.

Well, that, and the money. As a famous dentist once said: it’s always about the money.

The article describes a 59-year-old from Leduc they call ‘Don,’ on account of that’s his name, who needed four implants.

I’m not talking about silicone implants because Don is not a cross-dresser. At least not that I know of. These implants would take place in his mouth, wherein holes would be drilled into the jaw bone after the four rotten offending teeth were unceremoniously yanked out, then metal posts would be driven into these holes, much like the big pile driver machines that thump the big poles into the ground so that tall buildings can be built upon them, only much smaller and much more painful, and then, eventually, fake teeth would be glued to these metal mouth posts and — voila! — he is suddenly out of pocket about 20 grand. As in twenty thousand. Dollars. $20,000 Canadian dollars. For four teeth.

Now that those of you fortunate enough to not be facing what I like to call the “dental implant Visa sucker” and have nearly swallowed your dentures in shock, I apologize for my previous highly scientifically technical explanation of the complicated medical procedure of dental implantation, but believe me it’s got to be as complicated as a moon landing to cost $5,000 per tooth, don’t you think?

So anyway, poor old Don from Leduc, who had been going around with four simultaneous and continually excruciating toothaches for a very long time on account of, like many of us, his dental plan would only cover approximately $112 of the $20,000 implantation, started doing research on this thing he’d heard about called tourist dentistry.

After finding nothing but horror stories on the interweb about botched vacation dental work by “dodgy dentists” with dental chairs parked in gas stations or outdoors on the streets beside guys selling live crabs and dead oysters, he finally found an “reputable” agency in the U.S. of A., which hooked him up with a “reputable” dental “doctor” in Cancun.

In this particular case, apparently our Don had two trips to the marvelous Mayan Riviera, whereupon he soaked up the sea and the sand and the Novocain and ended up with four “perfectly executed” implants. And the total cost? $6,000.

Which, although I’m pretty sure I didn’t even pass high school math, seems to me is considerably less than the cost of four dental implants and a miserable non-holiday in the snowy deep freeze of Alberta.

The interweb is practically salivating with deals on dental vacations. They advertise 70 per cent savings on dental procedures, and make claims like: “Choose from 3,650 dentists in 32 countries!”

It seems like a pretty good idea at first blush, especially the kind of feverish blush caused by a very expensive toothache, but hold on a minute — is dental tourism really safe? Do you really want to put your mouth where your money is, if your money and your mouth are somewhere tropical?

Many medical practitioners don’t think so. Especially dentists who are losing business to foreign tooth doctors.

So if you are considering participating in a little holiday dentistry, I leave you with a little checklist before jumping into that chair:

— Always check the dentist’s credentials. Ask yourself: Does that diploma on the wall look like a photocopy? Is the diploma drawn by hand in crayon? How much was his mail-order degree from Eduardo’s Dental School of Dentistry in San Scamilito, Peru?

— Scope out the clinic. Is there a folding chair and a garden hose instead of a fancy dental chairs and spit bowls? Is the instrument sterilization machine a bucket with warm water and a dishwasher soap pellet?

Do the dental instruments look suspiciously like they came from an auto mechanic’s greasy tool box? Is the clinic actually in an auto mechanic’s shop?

— Take the vacation part first. Make sure you chill out in the sun, relax and enjoy your holiday before visiting your vacation dentist.

Very important: eat and drink copiously before your appointment — it may be the last time you’re able to eat or drink anything at all for a very, very long time.

— And finally, don’t forget to load up on the margaritas. You’re probably going to need them.

Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.