Know the drill: What Canadians need to know about dental tourism
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people shun Canada's icy winters for the sunny beaches of Mexico – and some of them put their vacation on pause for a quick stop at the dentist.
Others plot trips specifically for the purpose of avoiding a pricey dental procedure back home. But what are the risks when accessing treatment abroad?
Horror stories of dental work gone awry occasionally make headlines across Canada, but Dr. Valorie Crooks, a researcher with Simon Fraser University's medical tourism group, said they don't paint the full picture.
According to Crooks, while satisfied patients rarely make the news, many are more than happy to share their experiences with family, friends and strangers.
"There's a very strong word-of-mouth network in relation to Canadians accessing care abroad," she said.
On the other hand, some satisfied customers may have complications they aren't even aware of yet.
Dr. Vikram Grewal, owner of Okanagan Smiles Dentistry in Kelowna, B.C., has seen both sides of the dental tourism coin. Some patients come home having received quality care at a lower price, while others end up paying more in the long run.
Grewal pointed to X-rays from one woman who flew to Mexico to get her teeth capped. The result, in his words, was "beautiful."
"She has a wonderful smile. It works. But [they've] created another problem," he said.
The patient's X-rays revealed grey halos around her gums – leftover cement that's used to bond the crowns onto the teeth during the procedure but wasn't properly removed.
"The problem with that is the gums in this area will not appreciate that filling, or that cement, sitting right next to it, and now the gums will recede," Grewal said.
Dr. Bruce Ward, spokesperson for the B.C. Dental Association, recalled one of his own patients who travelled to get a root canal only to have it performed on the wrong tooth.
"My patient had to have a second root canal done up here after getting the other root canal and a crown done in Mexico," Ward said. "What's he going to do? Go back and demand his money back?"
Some supporters of the dental tourism industry feel it's unfair to highlight the horror stories; after all, some people experience complications back home as well.
And there's no telling what the success rate is for Canadian dental tourists because the government doesn't track how many people seek procedures outside the country.
There are clear signs that the industry is booming, however. You don't need to look any further than the island of Cozumel, Mexico to see many international tourists are chomping at the bit for cheap dentistry overseas.
Cozumel is the most popular port of call for cruise ships in the Americas, and there are at least half a dozen dental clinics located within a few blocks of the dock.
Crooks said Canadians will often disembark and decide to spend a few hours saving money on what would most likely be a much costlier procedure back home.
"This is a sector that thrives in part on people who are already abroad, people who happen to have a little bit of downtime on their holiday," Crooks said. "They already know they need a filling, they know they need a crown, and they think: Oh, look at the price point here."
And Cozumel has nothing on Los Algodones, a town of roughly 6,000 people near the U.S. border that's reportedly home to 500 dentists, earning it the nickname of "Molar City."
But should curious Canadians take the plunge? Well, that depends.
Crooks said for some people who have no insurance and no other means of paying for pricey dental work at home, travelling for care can be their only option. She recommends anyone set on seeking dentistry in another country do as much research as possible, and have contingency plans in place if something goes wrong.
"Make sure you have a plan in the chance that things don't turn out well," Crooks said. "What are you going to do? How are you going to take care of that? Can you extend your stay? Do you have the financial ability to do that?"
With files from CTV Vancouver's Maria Weisgarber