For at least two decades, medical, dental tourism has been an increasingly popular alternative for the uninsured desperate for care, and for middle-class Americans willing to travel to secure affordable health care.
Roughly half a million Americans sought medical care abroad in 2006, of which 40 percent were dental tourists, according to the National Coalition on Health Care, an alliance of more than 70 organizations. That’s up from an estimated 150,000 in 2004, said Renee-Marie Stephano, the chief operating officer for the Medical Tourism Association, a nonprofit organization that researches global health care.
Dental bridges and bonding ranked No. 1 and 2 on a list of most sought-after procedures for Americans traveling abroad for medical care, according to a report just published by HealthCare Tourism International, a nonprofit group that tracks health care.
In the latest twist on this trend, families are traveling abroad together, turning an annual vacation into a cost-effective checkup for the brood. Two reasons are at play, according to industry experts: a higher demand for elective dental care like teeth bonding and dental veneers, and second, the growing number of medical travel agents who vouch for the foreign doctors they recommend. Agents help patients choose between sightseeing-cum-dental packages from Hungary to Mexico and can even arrange a foreign baby sitter for parents in need of fillings.
“You can see where this could be a perfect opportunity to incorporate dental care — not typically dental treatment that will leave you bed-bound — and a family tour of a new country,” Ms. Stephano said.
There are 75 medical travel agents based in the United States, she estimated, a number she suggested will double by the end of this year.
To allay new customers’ fears, many dentists abroad, some of whom have trained in the United States and use the same equipment as American dentists, rely heavily on word of mouth from satisfied customers. Their Web sites include testimonials, and stateside references are provided.
There are two main groups of family-oriented dental travelers, said Neil Patel, the founder of HealthCare Tourism International. Immigrants have long returned to their countries of origin for dental and medical care and to spend time with relatives. But now there’s a more recent wave of patients, interested in taking their families to a far-flung location to make the best out of what is essentially a rather unpleasant chore.