Forget the pros: The con of medical tourism

Dental Tourism is a fairly new phenomena. The thought of travelling overseas to have a dental procedure completed would once never have been considered. Now however, all of a sudden, it seems to be an option people are genuinely considering.

If having a dental procedure completed in Thailand sounds "scary", then this is a perfectly good reaction to have. Thailand and many countries in Asia are a great place for a holiday, but stretching your holiday to include dental or medical procedures in the same way you enjoy a mani-pedi and a spa treatment can have serious, lifelong consequences.

No matter how easy, simple and effortless clever marketing by so-called medical tourism companies may make having dental treatment overseas sound, you must always take control of your own health, make decisions carefully and give serious consideration as to whether the risks out-way the rewards.

Having any health care procedure completed anywhere carries with it a certain level of risk and the outcome may be unpredictable based on your particular circumstances.

When you visit a dentist in Australia, for instance, you are guaranteed of being seen by a qualified professional who must adhere to a strict regime in terms of their education, ongoing training, ability to respond to an emergency and adherence to a high standard of infection control and overall patient safety, amongst other things.

Although rare, should a medical emergency occur during treatment, you are covered for subsequent treatment by your private health insurance, Medicare or a combination of the two, and if there is a problem with the dentist, whilst again rare, there is a clear process for conflict resolution to ensure you are treated fairly.

In addition, all dental and medical practitioners in Australia are legally bound to disclose any and all risks involved in any treatment being considered and the likelihood of the end result that you want being achieved.

Every dentist in Australia must also be fluent in the English language and if you cannot speak English well, then services are available to help you find a multi-lingual dentist or a translator.

When you're a stranger seeking dental treatment in a strange land, however, then you must tread carefully as many of these most basic tenements of receiving medical and dental care in Australia do not exist.

If something goes wrong in a foreign country where English is not the first language, what happens next?

Whereas being a successful dentist in Australia requires you to establish caring relationships with patients that last a lifetime, dental tourism operations are run by large corporations with only one aim in mind - profit through the mass production of dental treatment.

From the point of view of a dentist running a traditional private practice in Australia, it is of course easy to say have all your dental treatment completed in Australia, but for some people who see having dental treatment completed overseas as the only answer, I am writing this article to give you some good advice.

Please consider the following...

1. Dentistry in Australia is now less expensive

People who consider dental tourism often need a large amount of dental treatment completed. No one goes to Thailand for a clean or a filling. Instead, people often visit a dentist in Australia for a diagnosis and then compare the cost directly with how much it will cost for the same treatment overseas.

However, if cost is an issue, a better solution is to discuss your concerns with your dentist in Australia first. In dentistry, there is usually more than one way to achieve the outcome you are looking for and if the cost of treatment is beyond your budget, your dentist may be able to come up with an alternative treatment plan.

Or, complex treatment can often be completed over time, only requiring payment along the way as each stage of treatment is completed, making it more affordable.

There are now more dentists in Australia than ever before and as a result, having your dental treatment completed in Australia has never been more affordable due to increased competition.

2. Large amounts of dental treatment often take large amounts of time

As mentioned, people don't go overseas for simple dental treatment. They go overseas for the most comprehensive, complex and professionally challenging of dental procedures.

Very complex procedures should only be completed by well-educated and experienced dentists. More than that however, complex dental treatment often needs to be completed in stages over time to be successful in the long term.

Your Dentist in Australia will often plan your dental treatment over several weeks or months because your body needs time to respond to and recover from earlier stages of treatment – we often refer to this as time to heal.

If you were to decide to have a large amount of treatment all at once overseas, it may compromise the success of the dental treatment long term. In Australia, if a problem occurs during treatment, then the dentist can stop the procedure, allow your body to heal and recover, and then see you again in a week or so. If you're on a tight schedule overseas, however, then the dentist may continue with the treatment when they should in fact stop. You may be happy with the outcome of the treatment immediately, however, if treatment fails when you're back in Australia weeks or months later, it is very difficult to revisit your dentist for remedial action.

It is quite common for dentists in Australia to see patients with problems resulting from dentistry completed in other countries. Not only does remedial treatment see any money you saved by being treated overseas quickly evaporate, in many cases, your overall dental health will be compromised evermore.

3. Consider the total cost

Apart from the cost of the actual dental treatment, there are additional costs incurred with having dentistry completed overseas that include airfares and accommodation and other travel-related expenses, time away from work, etc, to consider.

I would also strongly advise you never to go overseas for dental treatment alone. Always take another adult with you because if there is a problem, you need an advocate to manage any issues that you may be unable to.

This again, adds to the overall cost.

4. What happens if something goes wrong

If you have a heart attack during your dental treatment, which although rare, does occur, what happens next if you're overseas? You will not be covered by your travel insurance for the "elective" dental procedure you are having performed overseas and you would budget to pay for that. However, what if there is a complication to the procedure that requires you to be hospitalised - will your travel insurance cover that? If you had a heart attack, for example, or developed a serious infection, then your travel insurance would likely not cover the costs unless you arrange additional cover beforehand. That question on your insurance claim form that asks did this problem arise following medical treatment… is for this exact eventuality. If you are having a medical or dental procedure performed overseas, then your traditional travel insurance plan will not cover the treatment or any problems that occur as a result of that treatment. If you are hospitalised in a general or intensive care ward of a "western" hospital in a foreign country, the costs can be significant. Alternatively, if a medical emergency arises from treatment in Australia, then Medicare and your private health insurance will cover it. However, if you have problems when you return to Australia following medical treatment overseas, you may also not have insurance coverage. This is a very important consideration.

5. Infection control and hygiene

Dentists in Australia must conform to stringent regulations to ensure patients are not infected with serious diseases like HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and others. Inspectors visit dental practices to conduct spot inspections to ensure dentists are conforming to the regulations and serious breaches result in the dentist being suspended from working for weeks or months and the practice closed. In Australia, dentists take the safety of their patients very, very seriously – if a patient with HIV or Hepatitis is treated immediately before you, then these safeguards ensure you could not be infected with these serious illnesses. If you did become infected with a serious illness in Australia, then an investigation would be conducted as to how you became infected using genotyping (looking at the genetic make-up of the virus to ascertain its origin). If the infection resulted from a dental appointment, then the dentist would face harsh sanctions for professional misconduct.

If you become sick due to poor infection control practices during dental treatment in a foreign country – either immediately following treatment or when you return home – then the consequences are very, very serious. The prevalence of HIV and Hepatitis is far higher in Asian countries than in Australia and as a result, the likelihood of becoming infected is far greater. When you have dental treatment in Australia, you are guaranteed of an optimal level of infection control and safety but in foreign countries, no such guarantees are in place.

Consider treatment in Australia first

Dental treatment, like all health care treatments, should be carefully considered and not based on cost alone. Having your dental treatment completed in Australia, when all things are considered and all risks are mitigated as much as possible, often costs less than an overseas alternative whilst also being far safer and providing a better outcome for you.

Complex dental treatment needs to be completed by experienced, well-educated dentists over weeks or months, with your health and the long-term final result being the ultimate goal.

Overseas holidays should be about relaxation and enjoyment and showing off your Australian-made smile.