In Britain, Dental Tourism Comes to You

People in wealthy countries worldwide have turned to dental tourism as a cheap source of dental care. But for the British, dental tourism is coming home to them in the form of a mobile, inflatable dental office tour.

Hungarian Dental Travel expanded its dental tourism business to Britain four years ago, but reportedly had trouble getting British patients to jump on the dental tourism bandwagon.

"Hungary has become the dental capital of the European Union," said Cecilia Varga, head of marketing at Hungarian Dental Travel. "But because the British are very traditional and suspicious about all sorts of things, we were constantly on the phone answering questions."

Varga said Britons often asked many more questions about dentists' qualifications, the materials, the methods and safety than dental tourists in other countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

"So we decided to bring the Hungarian dentists over to the U.K. so the patients could meet the dentists," Varga said.

The tour of the inflatable dentist office will kick off Thursday in Lincoln, U.K. Varga said patients can call ahead of time to book a 30-minute appointment to consult and design a treatment plan. If the British patient then wants to go through with the treatment, he or she can book hotels and surgery times with Hungarian Dental Travel.

Varga and her colleagues expect the tour to be a success. "There are huge waiting lists here [for British dentists]," Varga said. "People actually started doing DIY [do-it-yourself] dentistry."

Even a dental association in Britain acknowledges the temptation.

Real Shortage of Dentists

"National Health Services covers dentistry," said Simon Howell, director of campaigns at the British Dental Health Foundation. "But it's a contribution, it's not free like medical services."

Adding to the price is that, statistically, there are not enough National Health Service dentists and the general rate has increased, Howell said. Patients are left with pricey private dentists or the cheaper options to fix their teeth.

"They'll give you a nice set of plastic dentures, but probably not what you want to kiss your husband with when you're 50," Howell said.

Dentist Visit and Reducing Dental Costs

In Hungary, Varga says there are plenty of well-educated dentists, but the dental care costs less because the salaries, rents and general standard of living are lower throughout the country.

Combine these factors and there's a real potential attraction to dental tourism, Howell said.

"It comes really under the banner of dental tourism for us, and there are pluses and minuses for the patient -- and the biggest attraction is cost," said Howell, who noted that dental care in Hungary can cost 60 percent less than the same care in Britain.

As for the minuses, Howell said, "The downside is potentially threefold."

The Real Risks of Dental Tourism

First, Howell noted that patients who travel to get dental work have only a limited time period to make sure it's done right.

Dr. Leslie W. Seldin, consumer adviser for the American Dental Association, said the same goes for U.S. patients who seek dental care abroad.

"What happens if something goes wrong? What are you going to do about that?" said Seldin, who has noticed dental tourism companies advertising in the United States. "You just can't hop on a plane and run back to fix it."

Howell also noted that patients who travel abroad cannot depend on government guarantees that the dentist is licensed and properly trained. But Varga says that confirming a dentist's qualification was a keystone in the inflatable dentist office tour idea.

"You want to see their diplomas and their registration," Varga said. "All of our dentists are registered with the General Dental Council of London."

Registered or not, Howell still had a final concern about the risky nature of many procedures done in dental tourism.

"These are intricate procedures -- things like bridges and crown work and implantology," Howell said. "The slightest thing on the side of a prosthetic tooth will feel like a meteorite in your mouth, so this is high-quality work."

Yet Howell concedes that it is possible to get quality dental work abroad, and especially in Hungary.

"A lot of this work coming out of these countries is terrific," Howell said. "But it's serious stuff. Inert materials being screwed into the jaw -- these are not things that you want your dad to do in the kitchen."