Like most goods and services, the cost of dental treatments is usually cheaper in developing countries compared to Australia. In recent years, this has persuaded an increasing number of Aussies to fly abroad for cheaper dental care, or to combine a visit to an overseas dentist with their normal holiday.
Some overseas dentists and travel agents even offer package deals to cash in on the demand for dental tourism. There's always a catch though, and in the case of dental tourism, this can sometimes be more than just the cost of flights.
If you are considering going abroad for cheap dental implants or another treatment, here are some of the risks you need to be aware of so you can make an informed decision.
The Australian Dental Association (ADA) has issued warnings about the possible dangers of dental tourism, highlighting in particular the risks of dentists in some countries being less qualified and not subject to the same strict regulations as Australian dentists.
Dentists in Australia must have completed recognised training and experience before they can register with the Dental Board of Australia. Patients can search the public register of practitioners to check that their dentist is registered to practice.
Other accreditation can also reassure patients about the quality of dental practitioners and clinics, such as QIP accreditation that certifies that safety standards are being followed. Dentists and dental clinics abroad may not be held to the same high standards, so patients may not have the same assurance or may risk being misled.
The maxim that you get what you pay for is true with dental services. One reason why overseas dental treatments are cheaper is that the dentist may use inferior quality materials and equipment than are generally used or permitted in Australia. Poor quality dental restorations may chip or crack easily and are likely to need replacing sooner.
From titanium dental implants to teeth whitening gels, dental materials in Australia are strictly controlled by regulators such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which may not be the case in some countries. Even if an overseas dentist claims to use reputable brands and materials, there's a risk of these being imitations.
The language barrier is often a cause of confusion overseas, but when it comes to your health, clear communication is essential.
An Australian dentist, even if they hail from overseas, will be fluent in English and should be able to communicate complicated or technical information in terms you understand. Many Australian dentists offer a free consultation before starting a complex treatment such as dental implants or orthodontics, so they can give you the information you need to make a fully informed decision.
Your Australian dentist will also ask about any medical or dental history that may be relevant to your treatment, such as any materials you're allergic to. They'll work with you to plan your treatment in line with your goals and make sure you have a realistic idea of what to expect and what clinical risks may be involved.
Dental tourism focuses on countries where English is not the primary language and fluency is variable. Even if your dentist is able to communicate with you clearly, the short time frame that's usually involved for foreign dental visits means you often won't have the time to discuss your wants and needs. They also may not have access to your medical history, which could cause harm.
If you're having dental treatment on a budget, you should be prepared for more limited choices than you may be used to at your local dental clinic. Treatments may be provided on a one-size-fits-all basis, based on what the dentist prefers or has available, rather than tailored to your individual needs and preferences.
This could mean having to settle for a material you don't like for a crown, filling or other restorations and not being able to access services you may have taken for granted before, such as dental sedation to help you feel calm and relieve pain.
Lower professional and clinical standards combined with a rushed time schedule considerably increase the clinical risks of having dental treatments overseas. Since Australians are more likely to go abroad to save money on a complex treatment involving oral surgery than a straightforward procedure, these risks can be significant.
Dentists in Australia aim to minimise the clinical risks of procedures as much as possible. One way of doing this is to spread a complex treatment such as dental implants or root canal therapy over a number of appointments. This gives your mouth time to heal between procedures and allows your dentist to monitor your recovery closely.
This isn't possible when you're squeezing a procedure into a one or two week holiday, and overseas dentists often compress treatment times or skip intermediate steps. Flying so soon after surgery risks even more complications, such as blood clots.
Another area where overseas dental clinics may not follow the same high standards as Australian dentists is infection control. Australia's strict infection control protocols have been vital for protecting patients, clinic staff and their families during the coronavirus crisis and for preventing the spread of infections and diseases more generally.
While dentists in other countries may also practice infection control and hygiene standards, there is a risk of these being inadequate. The rise of antibiotic-resistant 'super bugs' seen in Australia in recent years has been blamed partly on patients using health services overseas and being exposed to bacteria they don't have immunity against.
Dental aftercare is an important part of the recovery process that simply isn't available when your dentist is in another country. If something goes wrong after your treatment and you need to see an emergency dentist, you could face the choice of having to extend your stay or going home with an incomplete treatment.
If a crown or filling feels uncomfortable or falls out after you get back to Australia, or you have any unexpected side effects from your treatment, arranging an appointment with your local dentist could cancel out the savings you made. It could even end up costing more if you need a repeat or corrective treatment.
Getting dental care overseas may be cheap, but in most cases it's all coming out of your pocket. Insurance companies are not likely to provide cover for dental tourism, due to the risks involved, whereas many health funds and government benefits in Australia do cover general dental services.
Finally, overseas dental costs might not be as cheap as the advertisement claims. Dentists may only disclose certain general costs that don't apply to all patients, so you might find on getting your bill that you weren't informed about additional fees involved, from anaesthesia to medication. As these costs add up, the savings grow narrower.
Dentists in Australia are required to be transparent about dental fees. They can provide a rough estimate for treatment costs over the phone or during an initial consultation, but they'll only be able to give you an accurate quote after they've examined your mouth and worked out your personal treatment plan.
Dental costs in Australia can be expensive, but there are other ways to save money on your bills that don't involve international travel and the risks of unregulated practitioners and medical complications.
Your local dental clinic in Australia can inform you about all the options available to help make dental services more affordable. These may include:
Dental clinics often have special offers on certain treatments, which may change frequently, so check their websites or ask their staff about their current deals. Always check the terms and conditions so you know how much you'll pay.
Find out whether your dentist offers flexible finance options to help you manage your payment. These typically break down a large payment into a series of smaller instalments, with no interest or other charges as long as you keep up with your repayments.
If you have health insurance, check whether it covers you for dental costs and what providers your dentist accepts. If your dentist is a preferred provider with your insurer, you may be eligible for extra benefits.
If your dentist is part of Dental Care Network, you may receive free Dentisure™ dental accident cover as a regular patient. This covers your costs in the event of a dental accident or emergency, so you can concentrate on your recovery.
Depending on your financial situation, you or someone in your family may be eligible to claim your dental costs on a government benefit program such as the Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS). CDBS provides up to $1000 over two years for general dental services used by children and teenagers aged 2 to 17.
Looking after your teeth and gums and keeping up with your scheduled dental visits makes it less likely that you'll need a corrective treatment, which can save you money and avoid pain and suffering. Your dentist may also recommend preventive treatments to lower your risks further.
If you need to see a dentist, but you're worried about the cost, contact our friendly team at Face Value Dental to find out how we can help you. Call us now on (07) 3221 0677 to find out more or book an appointment with your local Brisbane dentist.
Australian Dental Association. Dental Tourism [Online] 2016 [Accessed December 2020] Available from: https://www.ada.org.au/Your-Dental-Health/Younger-Adults-18-30/Dental-Tourism