Dental News

Surgery with a view

Wendy Champagne
June 1, 2006

Medical tourism is booming as governments battle to provide services.

Tooth tourist … Jeff Hankins saw the Taj Mahal after treatment.
Photo: Reuters

A vision of moonlight on the Taj Mahal is probably the last thing on the mind of anyone considering dental work, yet it is an association Jeff Hankins can make.

For a little more than the price of one dental implant in Sydney, Hankins travelled to India and took a side trip to the Taj, with all transport and accommodation arranged through his dental surgeon in India, and returned with three “excellent” implants.

Medical tourism is growing exponentially. A report by the Confederation of Indian Industry estimates that this year close to half a million foreign patients will travel to India for treatments as complex and varied as bone marrow and kidney transplants, neurosurgery, joint replacement and dental implants. Many will also opt for a recuperative holiday to round out their stay.

You can visit South Africa for cosmetic surgery and a safari. Or go to Thailand for a cataract operation and spend a week on the beach at Phuket.

Others will travel to the Philippines, Singapore or Malaysia for a cardiac bypass, Hungary for dentistry, or the Middle East for complete medical care at a luxury destination. By 2010, Dubai will operate the largest international medical centre between Europe and South-East Asia. It is set to include a branch of the prestigious Harvard Medical School.

Hospital waiting lists, the high cost of private medical insurance and the scarcity of dentists are all driving the industry.

The growth of medical tourism allows patients to regain some of the control lost to them in their local public systems, as well as slash the cost of specialist fees. For Americans without insurance, global tourism can simply mean affordable healthcare.

It also allows health-care practitioners in developing countries to compete with health providers in developed countries while boosting national tourism earnings.

Hankins’s Indian dentist saw two South American websites offering dental services at 20 to 50 per cent less than the US equivalent, and thought: “Why not India?” He and his dentist wife now run two clinics for international patients. “We take care of everything,” he says. “We create tour packages around the dental work.”

Government internet sites such as offer links to detailed information about medical services and procedures in their countries.

The tourism authority in Thailand ran adverts in Canada this year for “sun, sand and surgery”, while Thai Airways was packaging medical check-ups into holiday programs.

Hankins took a month to research dental options before settling on Singh. He says cost was of great importance because of the amount of dental work that was needed.

“Going to India saved me about a third to a half in costs, and that included all fares and accommodation.”

A single porcelain crown in India costs about $350, while a three-unit bridge costs $950, compared with upwards of $3500 in Australia. The cost of some medical treatments in Asia can be one-tenth of those in Europe or the United States.

But what about quality of care? There are horror stories, of course, particularly about cosmetic surgery, and prospective patients should carefully check the qualifications of the selected practitioner before deciding.

Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok has more than 200 surgeons who are certified in the US. India has an enormous pool of highly trained doctors.

The major providers also go out of their way to provide patients with personal care and services such as limousine travel from the airport to the hospital and private chefs.

Hankin’s own experience in India backs this up: “Outside the door there is poverty and dirt everywhere, inside it’s just like every other dental surgery.”

It is unlikely that medical tourism will ever overtake the level of care people access in their own countries, but for anyone with a passport and a sense of adventure it could be a viable alternative.

Hankins certainly thinks so. He is planning another visit to India for further treatment.