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Dental Tourism: An Untapped Revenue Opportunity

 

According to Patients Beyond Borders, about 1.2 million Americans will travel abroad for health and dental care in 2014. Commonly called “dental tourism,” the news media is promoting how patients can save money on dental work done in Mexico and other foreign countries—where costs for even the most complex procedures are up to two-thirds cheaper than those performed in the United States.

While dentists may assume that only the uninsured go abroad, research shows that the average dental tourist is middle class and has dental insurance. This means there is an opportunity for U.S. dentists to capitalize on the dental-tourism trend—if they can convince would-be travelers to get treated locally, instead. We surveyed a random sample of 1,155 U.S. residents to find out which patients are most likely to travel for dental care, and what might cause them to reconsider.

Cost Is Primary Concern About Getting Dental Treatment

Before patients even consider leaving the U.S., what are their primary concerns when deciding whether or not to undergo dental treatment? With average procedure prices often reaching into the thousands of dollars, it’s not surprising that cost of treatment is the leading concern for dental patients (41 percent).

Patient Concerns About Getting Dental Treatment
dental-treatment-concerns

Not having adequate time for treatment and recovery (16 percent) and concerns about pain or fear of dentists (9 percent) are significantly less influential factors for our sample.

Interestingly, 35 percent of patients responded that none of the concerns we provided were factors for them when deciding whether or not to undergo dental procedures. While some patients in this category may simply have no concerns about dental treatment, others may be experiencing a breakdown in dentist-patient communication.

Dr. Marty Jablow, a practicing dentist in Woodbridge, New Jersey and a dental technology consultant, advises that not understanding their condition, the prescribed treatment or the potential consequences of not getting treatment may contribute to patient reservations about dental care.

As Dr. Jablow succinctly explains: “If [patients] don’t understand the problem, [they] will not understand the solution.”

Dr. Roger Levin, founder and CEO of dental consulting firm Levin Group INC, adds that dental practitioners often stick to the technical explanation behind the recommended procedures, and fail to communicate the benefits that patients will experience after treatment. By addressing patient concerns in advance and clearly communicating conditions, treatment plans and benefits, dentists can help assure patients that even if dental care is expensive, it is a worthwhile investment.

Most Insured Patients Would Not Seek Cheaper Care Abroad

Although a majority of patients responded that cost was their greatest concern, our survey showed that only 17 percent of respondents who had dental insurance would be interested in leaving the U.S. for dental care if the cost of a given treatment was cheaper abroad than at home. (Eighteen percent of the overall sample reported that they did not have dental insurance, and thus were excluded from this chart).

Insured Americans’ Interest in Seeking Cheaper Dental Care Abroad
interest-in-dental-tourism

Though 17 percent is not a large number, it’s not insignificant—and according to Dr. Levin, the number of Americans willing to travel for dental care will likely increase due to the rise in quality of dental work done abroad as well as the reach of the Internet, through which practices can market to patients thousands of miles away. With the increasing amount of targeted advertising, he notes, having dental work done abroad may soon enjoy the global appeal of getting plastic surgery abroad.

Dr. Kyle Stanley of Helm | Nejad | Stanley—Dentistry in Beverly Hills, California, has identified an additional reason why some patients get dental work done abroad. Some of his foreign-born patients have returned to their home countries for major treatments due to the sense of loyalty and pride they feel when being treated by a dentist in their country of origin.

For American dentists, the 17 percent of respondents who expressed an interest in dental work abroad represent a growing trend that should be closely monitored. Since the average dental tourist does have insurance and the funds to afford treatment, it falls to dentists to persuade patients that the long-term value of American dental care is superior to cheaper care abroad. We found that this opportunity is greater for dentists located in certain parts of the U.S.

Patients in Western U.S. Most Likely to Go Abroad

According to our survey, more Americans residing in western states—Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming—would be willing to get dental treatment outside of the country if the cost was cheaper than care in the U.S. (25 percent).

Insured Americans Willing to Travel Abroad for Cheaper Dental Care
dental-tourism-by-region

Note: No data for Idaho, Hawaii, Maryland and Maine

Dr. Stanley indicated that increased interest in the southwest may be largely due to its proximity to Mexico. Being closer to a location known for inexpensive dental work would mean less time and money spent traveling to and from the dentist’s office. And for potential dental tourists in the northwestern states, proximity to Thailand, Malaysia or the Philippines—where dental treatment has also proven less expensive—could be a factor.

Least likely to be interested in dental tourism are patients in the northeast region, including residents of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, where just 8 percent of respondents would be willing to travel abroad for dental care. Respondents in the Midwest and the South weren’t far behind, at 10 percent each.

Health Risks Would Most Persuade Patients to Get Care in U.S.

When we asked our sample what would convince them not to travel abroad for dental care if the cost of a given treatment was lower there, 56 percent said there was nothing that would persuade them. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that these patients are unreachable—however, the risks of dental tourism may need to be reframed to help patients see how they could personally be impacted.

Of those who said they could be persuaded, a majority of patients (39 percent) indicated that they would be most likely to reconsider more expensive care in the U.S. if they were informed about the health risks associated with dental care abroad.

What Would Convince Potential Dental Tourists to Get Care in U.S.
dental-tourism-convince

Twenty-three percent of patients replied that they would be most inclined to reconsider if they were informed about the potential lack of legal protections abroad. Health care laws differ from country to country, but one universal risk is that malpractice suits against foreign dentists may not be admissible in U.S. courts.

Improved dental payment plans and more flexible appointment scheduling would be the least convincing to patients (selected by 22 and 23 percent, respectively), potentially because of the availability of medical credit cards such as CareCredit and the fact that many dentists already offer evening and weekend appointments.

It seems patients are right to pay the most attention to the health risks associated with dental tourism, as Dr. Levin notes that they can be substantial.

Risks include “the possibility of the condition worsening after treatment; the need for retreatment relatively soon; the loss of teeth leading to the need for more extensive procedures; and [the] greater overall cost if procedures are not performed properly in the first place,” Dr. Levin says.

So in the end, a course of action that patients expect will help them save time and money (getting care abroad) could actually result in higher costs—and worse outcomes. If patients understand this, American dentists may be able to not only retain patients’ business, but also protect them from health-related, financial and legal consequences.

Discussing Risks in Office Visits Most Effective Strategy

Since the health risks involved were the factor that would most convince potential dental tourists to stay in the U.S. for treatment, we also asked patients how they would prefer to learn about these risks. Our survey found that the majority of patients would prefer to have an in-office conversation with their dentist.

How Patients Prefer to Hear About Dental Tourism’s Health Risks
dental-tourism-communication

Not only is face-to-face communication the method patients most prefer, as mentioned previously, it’s also one of the most effective ways to lessen anxieties and remind patients of the benefits and value of proper dental care. Thus, dentists should focus on discussing the health risks of dental tourism during office visits in order to dissuade patients from seeking care overseas.

There are a few strategies that dentists can use to remind themselves to discuss this issue with patients. Posters and brochures, which would effectively capture the attention of almost one-quarter of patients, could serve as a great conversation-starter. Pop-up reminders, which are a feature of some dental EMR systems, can also be programmed to remind dentists to communicate with patients about dental tourism’s risks.

Less personal tactics, such as accessing information through a dental practice’s website or as part of a new patient packet, were not as compelling to patients, and thus are less likely to be effective.

Conclusion

While some dentists practicing abroad have been trained in the U.S., concerns about the quality of their work are still valid. Dentists abroad are not accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA)—so patients can never be entirely sure what to expect.

And for American dentists, prospective dental tourists represent a viable source of untapped revenue for practices—particularly those located in the western U.S. After all, though there are 130 million Americans without dental insurance, only 18 percent of our respondents indicated that they were uninsured.

Medical tourism has long been most common among insured, middle-class Americans who want to avoid high out-of-pocket treatment costs in the U.S. Dental tourism seems to be no different, as most dental insurance plans only offer coverage for basic procedures and/or portions of advanced ones. Further evidence that the average dental tourist is insured lies in the fact that many U.S. insurance companies are now expanding coverage into Mexico.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that one of the most effective tools for communicating to prospective dental tourists is honest, sincere discussion.

“When patients have confidence in the doctor, feel that they are treated well by the team and believe they are already receiving excellent dental care for their money,” Dr. Levin notes, “they will have no reason to look elsewhere.”

“Palm Trees at Pueblo Bonito Rose Resort in Cabo” created by Nan Palmero used under CC BY / cropped and resized.

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Kathleen Irwin

About the Author

Kathleen Irwin joined Software Advice as a Market Research Associate in 2014. She writes and manages content related to the medical market.

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