It was in a small village just over the border from Yuma, Ariz.,that Carol Nielson got her first Mexican dental procedure.
She had heard the dentists there were good, and cheap, so she decided to get her teeth cleaned, something she remembers cost "about 10 bucks."
Twenty years later, she gets all her dental work done there in the city of Los Algodones, which has become known as a sort of mecca for dental procedures in the country. Tourist websites boast that the city, seven miles south of Yuma, has more than 350 resident dentists.
Medical tourism - that is, going abroad for medical procedures - is expected to grow in Canada and globally, according to a report from the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.
The report estimates that two per cent of Canadians already go outside the country to seek medical treatment, and 31 per cent would pay out of their own pocket to do so.
Nielson, who travels from Nanaimo to spend the winter in Los Algodones every year, said she has seen her fair share of fellow Canadians lured there in ever-increasing numbers by the promise of cut-rate dental procedures.
"I've had root canals. I've had all my top and front teeth capped. Everyone's always saying to me, 'You've got beautiful teeth," said Nielson.
The dentist she goes to in Los Algodones advertises crowns for $130. It's a considerable discount, considering the procedure can run anywhere from $750 to $1500 per tooth in Canada.
How exactly those costs are kept down is unclear, however, said Dr. Bruce Ward, spokesman and past president of the B.C. Dental Association.
"For me to get a crown here in my hand usually costs around $300," before it is even inserted,
said Ward. "So $130 for a crown, you go, 'How can they do that?'"
The crowns he uses are made in a lab and are constructed from CSA-approved materials - usually porcelain and gold.
Exactly what materials are being used in the procedures are one factor local dentist Jim Guild also cautions patients on.
"You don't know what the materials are, and some of the metals can be non-precious metals so you can have allergies," said Guild, who helped found the CODE not-for-profit dental clinic in Nanaimo.
"There's a big black market everywhere in the world for all kinds of materials and supplies, so you don't know what you're getting, as far as a product," he added. "So there's questions you would want to ask."
Ward stresses that it is important to see a Canadian dentist before going for procedures abroad, if only to have an assessment of what needs to be done.
The treatment plan can change considerably once the patient arrives, he added.
That was the scenario for Protection Island resident Tanis Roberts, who went to a dentist with a sore tooth while on vacation in Mexico.
"I went to the dentist and he said, 'Oh, you have four cavities,'" said Roberts, who had never had a cavity in her life.
"So I said, 'Well maybe just fill the one sore tooth,' so he filled it . . . but when I got home and had my first checkup, they said, 'You don't have any cavities.' So I think he would have happily filled all four of them," she said with a laugh.
Another thing to ask for when getting dental work abroad is what the recourse is, should the procedure go wrong, said Ward.
"A patient of mine just recently came back and he'd had a root canal started but not finished, and right beside it, the tooth that should have had the root canal had a big abscess at the tip of it," said Ward, who has been a dentist for 35 years.
Look for personal referrals for skilled out-of-country dentists to avoid such situations, he advised.
In response to the popularity of out-of-country procedures, the B.C. Dental Association have released a list of recommendations on "dental tourism" on their website at www.bcdental.org
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