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Living in Merida, Mexico, at the time, we were dashing around the house and packing for an early flight when a tall American forehead met a low Spanish Colonial doorway, and a top front tooth snapped cleanly in half.
Once we returned from the trip, we called our dentist and got an appointment immediately. In three visits, he cast a color-matched cap for the tooth, ground a post from the remaining half of the real tooth, and fit the new cap perfectly. It was as if nothing had ever happened.
In the States we estimate that we'd have paid anywhere from $800 to $1,500 for the same work, depending on the type, location and material of the cap or crown. Our dentist in Mexico charged less than $400. Even though it wasn't a large amount, we didn't have that much cash on us.
"That's fine," he said, "bring it in when you get it."
That's dentistry in Mexico, and throughout most of the rest of Latin America where we've visited and lived. In at least five Latin American cities or towns, we've had fillings, root canals, cleanings...
And the story is always the same... great quality work at half the cost or less of the same work in the U.S.
There are some local peculiarities, but for the most part, dental care from a qualified professional in any large metropolitan center in Mexico or the rest of Latin America isn't much different from in the States -- except for the price. Some doctors practice out of private offices in a converted part of their own homes. Others practice in larger specialized clinics or have offices in major medical centers.
Naturally, the higher the overhead, the more expensive the care, so you'll pay a premium for those fancy new offices and equipment. But on average, a visit to the office for a check-up runs $60. Cleanings cost about the same (except in Ecuador where we now live and where we pay $30), and basic fillings average $80 or $95. More serious procedures vary in price depending on the individual situation, but dental implants, bridges and crowns are significantly less expensive than in the U.S.
Most dental work in our experience is paid for in cash. It is then up to the patient to make any insurance claims for reimbursement. But does anyone have dental insurance these days, we wonder?
It's very possible to spend next to nothing to have dental work done in a doctor's converted front-room office with 20-year-old equipment while speaking nothing but Spanish. But most of these dentist are career tooth pullers, who make their living off Mexicans who cannot afford to save their teeth as we are used to doing.
You don't want a dentist in the barrio or a dirt street border town doing your expensive dental makeover. Best get a Board Certified Dentist if you are having complicated dentistry.
But regardless of the equipment, surroundings or language skills, one thing you will find with most dentists throughout Latin America is an abundance of personal care and dedicated customer service.
Appointments can often be made immediately or just days in advance, and if a price is agreed upon in advance for a procedure that then requires more time and work than anticipated, the price will most likely not change.
And your dentist will also most likely give you his personal cell phone number in case you have any questions or discomfort after a procedure -- and he or she will actually answer the phone when you call, no matter the time of day or night.
If you're one of the more than 100 million Americans who lack dental insurance, then you should know: Costs for high-quality dental procedures abroad can be so low that you could easily combine a vacation (including airfare and hotel) with your care and still pay less than you would for the dental procedures alone in the States.
These days the Internet is full of medical tourism outfits that will match your health needs with a desired location and an itinerary of tours and services. Shop around, do your research, exercise all the due diligence that you would when researching any other service on the Internet.
Regardless of the lower prices found via dental tourism, one has to be careful because most of the medical and dental travel agencies do not have the manpower to vet all the dentists they sign up. And most of the dentists out there are general dentists, many of whom would love to take your money to do your cosmetic dental makeover or dental implants even though they are not qualified to do these procedures. Be safe and get a board certified dentist if you are having advanced dentistry in Mexico or elsewhere abroad.
Dental tourism has come of age - and it's a wonderful way to go if you go prepared and get the right dentist for your needs. You may well be able to get those old filings removed and those caps replaced while staying at a historic hacienda or recuperating in a hammock on the beach.