Head tilted back, with various buzzing instruments wiggling near my tonsils, I heard something worrying.
The looming dentist spoke through a surgical mask in a thick Nepalese accent, her voice competing with the splutter of liquid being sucked from my gums. It sounded like she had said: “Oh my God”.
After trying and failing to get an NHS dentist appointment in Britain – recent research found that 91 per cent of UK dental practices are refusing to take new patients – getting my teeth fixed abroad seemed like a logical option. But having spent several days wrestling with my concerns, before finally agreeing to have five fillings fitted in a clinic on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the exclamation had me suddenly feeling very queasy.
Thankfully, I’d misheard. There was a complication, but it wasn’t serious. I was simply producing more saliva than normal. I wouldn’t be leaving in an ambulance after all, but with a mouthful of patched-up pearly whites – and a very reasonable bill. A consultation, five fillings and cleaning cost me £130: around five times less than a private clinic in Britain would charge.
It seems I’m not the only one going to extreme lengths to get my teeth fixed. Last month the British Dental Association (BDA) said that millions of people in the UK are unable to get necessary treatment, with NHS services at “tipping point” largely due to dentists leaving the profession. Most clinics are not accepting new patients for NHS services, with those that do often forecasting waits of over a year.
So, to bypass the crisis, many Britons are going abroad, either specifically for treatment or to combine their holiday with a trip to the dentist. Among the most popular options are Turkey, where a single tooth implant can cost around £300, compared to £1,500-£2,500 privately in the UK, and root canal treatment £65, compared to £700 in Britain. Spain and Thailand are also finding favour, with the bonus of being – like Turkey – brilliant for holidays.
A growing trend
A recent BDA survey of 944 dentists found that 85 per cent recognised dental tourism as a growing trend, with the staffing crisis, combined with Instagram-fuelled demand for pristine teeth, said to be driving the rise.
“I understand people’s motivation from a financial point of view,” said Paul Woodhouse, BDA board member and owner of a UK dental practice. “Plus, from a societal point of view young people want the gleaming Love Island smile – and they want it instantly.”
But there’s widespread concern about this seemingly-appealing shortcut, with 86 per cent of the dentists surveyed saying they have treated patients for complications following treatment overseas.
I was abroad when I learned that I needed dental treatment, presumably the result of giving up alcohol in 2018 and replacing it with desserts. Last September I had a teeth cleaning session during a trip to the Mexican city of Merida. Afterwards the dentist said I needed numerous fillings, which would cost over £1,000 at her clinic.
Mexico is a popular dental tourism destination for people from the US, where dental work can be staggeringly expensive and isn’t subsidised by the state. But £1,000 seemed like an awful lot of money, so I opted to wait for an NHS appointment.
Back home in Margate, I went to a dental clinic and asked for treatment as an NHS patient. The receptionist’s reply sounded very well rehearsed. There was no capacity in the clinic or town. Try Folkestone, 28 miles away.
Recent BBC research found that some people drove hundreds of miles in search of dental treatment. Others even pulled their own teeth out. Despite frustration and mild toothache, I wasn’t ready for pliers.
Soon after, on a brief work trip to Albania, a local tour operator boss told me that the country was popular for dental tourism. Fillings cost between £25 and £50 there, compared to around £100 for a white filling through UK private treatment. I was tempted but didn’t have time before my next flight.
But then I went on another work trip to Nepal. Better known for its hiking opportunities than the quality of its healthcare, I didn’t consider using the trip to fix the pain in my mouth until I stumbled upon what’s known as the ‘toothache tree’: a wooden stump covered in coins in Kathmandu’s old town.
According to a legend of the Newar, the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, Vaisha Dev, the goddess of toothache alleviation, can be appeased by nailing rupees to the tree. Locals do so before visiting rickety dental clinics nearby, which display grinning sets of false teeth behind grimy windows.
When I asked my tour guide if he trusted these clinics, he slowly shook his head. The toothache tree did, however, inspire me to research further. Dental tourism in Nepal is also on the rise with a growing number of companies offering packages, and I managed to find a list of clinics that were judged to meet US standards. A few days later I was on my back in Lalitpur, a couple of miles south of Kathmandu, mouth agape.
Efficiently-run and super-clean, the Ortho Dental Clinic was rather different to the dusty venues I’d seen earlier in the week. The fillings were inserted with a minimum of fuss, and £130 seemed ridiculously good value.
“That person in Nepal might be the most amazing dentist,” said the BDA’s Paul Woodhouse. “It’s wrong to disparage somebody just because of their location. But they can look professional and clean, and possess modern kit – it doesn’t mean they can use it.”
Risks and regulations
Woodhouse strongly advises against dental tourism. He said that Britain’s dentistry regulation is enormously rigorous compared to that of many other countries, and that the biggest risk of seeking treatment abroad was often the lack of continual care that comes with an “in and out” job.
“The lack of long-term guarantees is something nobody considers,” he said. “Whereas if something goes wrong in the UK you can get financial compensation to make good on the work.”
He mentioned a teenager he’s treating in Britain, who had 20 crowns installed in Turkey in what Woodhouse described as an “assault”. The patient now can’t chew or speak properly and is in constant pain – the bill to rectify the botch job will be over £20,000.
I probably wouldn’t have had dental work more complicated than fillings in Nepal. Woodhouse’s warnings make perfect sense. But there are so many people in the UK who feel that dental tourism may be their only realistic option. Indeed, friends of mine who also can’t get NHS treatment are now considering Nepal holidays with added fillings. You can buy a return flight, the same treatment I got, plus a week in a great hotel for under a grand.
My dental tourism experience feels positive so far. None of my fillings have fallen out, I’m chewing dal bhat daily and my toothache has gone. Woodhouse admitted that for all the dental tourism botch jobs he sees in the UK, there will be success stories he’ll never hear about. I’m hoping to remain in the latter category after my Nepalese fillings get more wear and tear.
With the NHS dentistry landscape looking increasingly bleak, Woodhouse expects the dental tourism trend to intensify. He said: “Unless the Government invests loads in the NHS, so everyone can have an NHS dentist, people are going to be in the horrendous position of taking a choice to go abroad.
“If it works out, fantastic. If it doesn’t work out, they’re knackered.”
Five pointers for those dead set on dental tourism
Stalk embassy staff
If you’re in a foreign capital city for treatment try to ask the UK or US embassy or consulate staff where they get their teeth done. These organisations may have recommended clinics they have assessed.
Don’t judge on appearances
Many clinics market themselves to foreigners with super-clean venues, classical music in waiting rooms and modern-looking equipment. Don’t let these factors be clinchers – they could be there to mask inefficiencies.
Research, research, research
Seek independent testimonials from people who have had similar treatments to what you need done, at the clinics you’re considering. Check online reviews but beware of fakes (if someone has posted just one Google review ever, that’s a potential red flag).
Once you leave a clinic abroad you might never speak to that dentist again. Ask every question possible before you leave. How long will your fillings last? How should you protect your new gnashers? If you have time, insist on a check-up a few days after the treatment.
Price up private
Contact a few private UK clinics for quotes for the treatment you need. With your travel, accommodation and living costs abroad factored in, how much more expensive is it than dental tourism? Saving for the difference eliminates the high risks of treatment abroad.