Frank Gallo, a financial planner who works in Burbank, lives in a comfortable, American middle-class existence with his family and could probably afford dental care wherever he wanted to get it.
But a bad experience with a local dentist soured him from pursuing any needed dental work done in California.
“I remember going to a dentist here one time (in the US) for some cavities. They told me I needed a lot of dental work. But then I went to Mexico, and they told me I needed no [more] dental work at the time,” Gallo said.
Since then — other than the one time he went to UCLA for a cleaning “that was like practice for students” — Gallo said he takes his family to the towns of Tijuana or Mexicali when they need to see a dentist.
“Neither I nor anyone in my family look for dental care here in the United States. It’s been 30 years, and I’ve never needed that dental work I was told to have. We always go to Mexico. I don’t know how much I’ve saved, but it’s easily in the thousands of dollars. To me it has been worth it.”
Gallo is not alone. Tens of thousands of Americans, especially seniors, flock to Mexico and other countries every year for dental services at a much lower cost than in the US.
One of the more popular dental “vacation” or “tourism” stops in Mexico is the town of Los Algodones, which is close to the borders of both California and Arizona. Nicknamed the “Molar City,” Los Algodones boasts of having more than 300 dental clinics and more than 900 available dentists — not to mention pharmacies, physicians and opticians. The prices listed on its molarcity.com website for dental work can seem startling; for example a set of braces costing $5,500 in the US can cost $2,000 here.
Why such a dramatic difference? For one, dental education in a public dental institution in Mexico is free or subsidized because of government support. In return, the graduating dentist there provides a year of free dental community service, but often doesn’t start his or her career saddled with debt. By contrast, US dentists can leave school with $150,000 or more in loans to repay.
In addition, dentists in Mexico are not required to have mandatory malpractice insurance, which is very expensive. And both labor and real estate costs, including rent, are much less expensive in Mexico.
Bill Piskorowski, a professor at the UCLA dental school, contends that the quality of care in the US is higher and better.
“There’s no question that the services [in some foreign countries] are cheaper. Unfortunately, I also have to tell you the oversight of the performance of the product is not necessarily conforming with the rules and standards of the United States,” Piskorowski said.
“I don’t know or have access to the statistics on misadventures, but they are sizable. And, in the long run, if we just educated our own population here in the United States of the value of [getting] routine services, people wouldn’t need to go into other areas.”
But the US would seem to face a long catch-up procedure to stem the flow of people going to Mexico or other countries for routine or more complex dental work.