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Dental care, south of the border


Examining the surprising trend of American dental migration to Mexico.

American news media is filled with reports on the status of the border with Mexico. Talking heads expound endlessly about the number of Mexican migrants crossing the border into the United States. Debates are had about a wall or  opposition to a border wall. Whether fleeing violence in home countries, just seeking some better life options, or another reason entirely, migrants cross the border - legally or illegally - and the conversation stateside rages on.

But one topic ripe for debate is discussed much less often: What about the reverse trend?

Reports have often focused on spring break escapades to Tiajuana, Mexico, or Californians crossing the border for more affordable and easily accessible prescription drugs. But many in the American dental community may be surprised to learn that during the winter months, as many as 7,000 Americans per day are traveling to Los Algodones, Mexico, a small town located on the northeastern tip of Mexicali. Why are so many making this trek?

To receive affordable dental care.

A coverage gap

Los Algodones, also known as Molar City, is home to more than 600 dentists working in 300 clinics, according to a report from NBC Nightly News. Many of the clinics advertise their affordable costs for dental care and treatment on their websites. According to Molar City’s official website, dental services there are reportedly about 70 to 75 percent less than the cost in the United States and Canada.

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It’s no surprise that cost is one of the major reasons Americans are considering traveling to another country to receive dental care. According to the National Association of Dental Plans, roughly 114 million Americans have no dental coverage. Medicare doesn’t cover most dental care or dental procedures, leaving about 46.3 million Americans over the age of 65 uninsured. A research brief by the Health Policy Institute and American Dental Association suggested that financial barriers are keeping adults from visiting the dentist, noting that one out of five American adults is unable to afforded needed dental care.

Sani Dental Group, which claims to be the largest dental group in Los Algodones, Mexico, has been providing dental care since 1985. Its three offices see approximately 750 American patients each month, depending on the season.

“Some Americans just love being treated in our facilities. They say that it’s because it has the same high quality at more affordable prices,” says Dr. Javier Muñiz Pérez.

Dr. Yasmin Carvajal of Dental Betel in Los Algodones says her office sees about 100 American patients from November to April and about 50 per month the rest of the year. Dr. Carvajal says the cost of dental care is lower in Mexico because all expenses are paid by the patients, rather than being negotiated by insurance companies, and the cost of living in the country is lower than that of America. She adds that education in Mexico is much more affordable, which allows dentists to be able to offer their services at reasonable rates.

“The cost of insurance and health care in the USA is very high for the average American,” she says. “In Mexico, the medical costs are between 20 to 30 percent of the cost of U.S. health care. The process to claim your benefits is time-consuming and deductibles are high.”

While the low cost of dental care in Mexico may be attractive to many Americans, the question remains: Is it safe to receive treatment there?

Up next: Low cost, high risk? Not necessarily...


Low cost, high risk? Not necessarily

Dr. Maria Lopez Howell, DDS, works at a dental practice in Garden Ridge, Texas, close to the U.S-Mexico border. She has family members who work on the Mexican side of the border and has known about Americans traveling to Mexico to receive dental care for most of her life.

“Even as a child, there were people who would go to south Texas near the border and settle there for the winter to get away from the Midwest, and they would come over the border and have dental work done there. I was in my aunt’s dental office [as a child] and there were Americans there,” says Dr. Howell, who serves as a national spokesperson for the American Dental Association

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Dr. Howell says she’s had some of her own patients travel to Mexico to receive dental care. Some have had great experiences while others did not. Doing your homework before you go is key - Dr. Howell recommends asking the practices what sort of qualifications their dentists have as well as seeking out referrals.

“When it goes right, it can work out well, but if you’re going to another country, find out what your recourse is,” she says. “What happens if you get an infection and you’re back here and your home dentist is then faced with an issue that they weren’t involved with to begin with? How do you get back there? All the money you might’ve saved in going away, now you have to go back. Is there any cost savings at that point?”

She also cautions people to be on the lookout for travel advisories.

“If not for disease, it might be for patient safety. I’m not even talking about whether the dental care is safe, it can be the environment or political situation that’s unsafe,” Dr. Howell says.

Dr. Perez, on the other hand, believes that there is no risk associated with receiving dental or medical care in a different country as long as the procedures are done by a certified doctor and the facility followed every established safety standard.

“Press and television tend to exaggerate and generalize the facts about security in Mexico,” he says. “Another aspect is that the patient may think that the procedures are done differently or with other materials, but this is not true. Our doctors are always in continuing education and the materials and instruments are the same that an American doctor uses.”

Dr. Carvajal agrees that Mexico being unsafe is one of the biggest misconceptions about the country. However, she notes that there are both good and bad dentists in Mexico, just as in any country.

“Each country has its own health department that regulates that any dental office, hospital or medical clinic fulfill all the standards and regulations for disease control and prevention as well as verify that all the medical staff has its licenses and continuing education in order to be certified to be in business,” she says.

It’s unclear what sort of long-term effect this migration of Americans to Mexico to receive dental care may have on the U.S. While the cost of U.S. health insurance is largely in the hands of the federal government, Dr. Howell says one of the best ways to make dental care more affordable is to prevent needing it in the first place.

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“I’m not aware of another area of health care where the old adage ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is truer than in dentistry,” she says. “You can guide your patients to brush for two minutes twice a day, clean in between their teeth and use a fluoride toothpaste with a seal of approval. Having a balanced and mindful diet is also helpful. I think that’s a really, really good start at reducing health care costs for families.”

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