Legions of North Americans come to Costa Rica each year to ride the waves, relax on the beach, explore the rain forest and, increasingly, to say “ah,” and save up to two-thirds off the hefty bill of cosmetic dental procedures.
“My upper front teeth were going to cost between $18,000 and $30,000 in the United States. I am a single parent, with a kid in school. I couldn’t afford to pay that,” said Jeff Schult, a freelance writer from the U.S. state of Connecticut.
Schult first found out about options for cosmetic dentistry abroad accidentally, when he came across an article touting medical tourism on the Internet. Digging deeper, he found a wealth of information about dental procedures in Costa Rica. While countries such as Italy, Hungary and Thailand offered the same dental work for comparable prices, Schult says the decades of experience in Costa Rica, proximity to the United States and low prices led him to choose the Central American locale.
“In Costa Rica, the 14 crowns and six root canals I had done cost me about $8,000, which was less than half what I would (have paid) in the United States,” Schult said of his visit in 2004.
This extensive procedure took dentist Thelma Rubinstein of Prisma Dental in San José 10 days to perform, while the same procedure would have required multiple appointments in the United States and taken weeks to complete, according to Schult. Rubinstein has been practicing cosmetic dentistry for 20 years, and estimates that about 60% of her patients hail from the United States.
Dental crowns, such as those Schult had done, can cost $250-350 in Costa Rica and $800-2,500 in the United States. Other common procedures in Costa Rica include implants ($700-800 in Costa Rica vs. $1,200-3,000 in the United States), veneers ($300 vs. $800-2,500) and laser bleaching ($300 vs. $1,400).
Though cosmetic procedures are usually not covered by insurance policies, depending on the type insurance, some patients may be able to claim certain operations. Patients should contact their insurance company beforehand to verify their type of coverage. Many dentists in Costa Rica offer assistance filling out insurance forms.
Recent reports have revealed stagnant tourism growth in Costa Rica as a result of rising airfares, increasing crime rates and poor infrastructure. Medical and educational tourism are the two areas that are showing significant growth and future potential, said Carlos Lizama, president of the Costa Rican Association of Tourism Professionals (ACOPROT) (TT, Jan. 12).
Aside from cheaper prices than in the United States, many dentists here offer tourism-related services such as airport transport, hotel packages and deals on tours. Practices such as Prisma Dental also offer discounted stays at fine hotels as ideal places to recover and relax after surgery.
“I give my patients my cell phone number so they can reach me 24 hours for any emergency,” said Dr. Luis Guillermo Obando, who specializes in implants in San José.
Obando, like Rubinstein, says most of his patients – nearly 80% – come from the United States.His implants take about 30 minutes and cost $700-800. Obando recommends that his patients send panoramic X-rays from their dentists back home, so he can quote the exact price of treatment before arrival.
Though the prices, special assistance and location impressed Schult, he did have reservations, questioning the quality of the service in a third-world country. However, his fears were quelled, he said, after a pleasant e-mail exchange with Prisma Dental, through which he discovered that Rubinstein had been educated and trained in the United States.
Most Costa Rican dentists have been educated abroad – mainly in the United States and Europe – in quality, reputable schools, bringing their techniques, instruments and materials back to Costa Rica, according to Obando. Some have been schooled as far as Switzerland and Canada, and are also members of international dental organizations.
“We study in the United States, but we have the prices of Latin America,” Obando pointed out.
Schult says he now believes that having surgery done in Costa Rica, regardless of price, may be a better option than in the United States, because the dentists have had more experience with more involved, larger-scale operations, such as his operation requiring 14 crowns in one visit.
“I have no hesitation recommending (Costa Rican dentists),” he said. “I go back for my regular checkups. They seem like family to me; I go out with them when I’m there.”
In fact, the journalist was so impressed with the quality of service and personal care he received in Costa Rica that he wrote a 10,000-word article detailing his experience.
The article became the cover story for the May 23, 2004, edition of The Sunday Magazine of The Hartford Courant. His article received enormous response from people across the United States who were interested in similar dental procedures. This popularity led to an agent contract and Schult’s book, “Beauty from Afar,” about the new phenomenon of medical tourism.
Schult offers a sage piece of advice for those considering whether or not to go abroad: he encourages everyone to do the math with all of their expenses before leaving home to see if the savings are really worth it.
“If whether you can sue your doctor is a primary issue, you should probably stay close to home,” he said.
Central Valley Dentists
General cosmetic dentistry since 2003
Location: Clínica Dental y Especialidades Doctores Acebal, 500 m south of Multiplaza Escazú
Contact: 201-7080, email@example.com
Dr. Arturo Acosta
General cosmetic dentistry since 1987
Location: Dentavac, 800 m west of La Paco commercial center,
to Santa Ana
Contact: 289-9618, www.dentavac.com
Dr. Arnoldo Anglada
Implant specialist since 1997
Location: 100 m south of McDonald’s, La Sabana; and Boulevard Lindora, Santa Ana
Contact: 232-0105, www.costaricaimplants.com
Dr. Lai Chan
General cosmetic dentistry since 2005
Location: Costa Rica Dental Cosmetic, 100 m north of Servicentro La Galera, Curridabat
Contact: 271-6165, www.dentalcosmeticcr.com
Dr. Jaime Feinzaig
Restorative dentistry since 1971
Location: Clínica Odontológica Feinzaig, Parque Librería Universal, Sabana Sur
Contact: 231-2867, www.clinicafeinzaig.com
Dr. Luis Guillermo Obando
Implant specialist since 2004
Location: Hospital México, La Uruca
Contact: 228-0141, www.dentalimplantcr.com
Dr. Bernal Pacheco
Prosthodontics since 1977
Location: Clínica de Rehabilitación Oral Pacheco, Ca. 11, Ave. 8/10
Contact: 223-7905, www.dentistryincostarica.com
Dr. Thelma Rubinstein
General dentistry since 1987
Location: Prisma Dental,
, Banco Uno building, 3rd floor
Contact: 291-5151, 291-5454, www.cosmetics-dentistry.com
Dr. Adriana Seas
Cosmetic and restorative dentistry since 2002
Location: Clínica de Salud, next to the Tennis Club, Sabana Sur
Contact: 291-0525, www.cosmetic-dentalcare.com
Dr. Carlos Suárez
General cosmetic and aesthetic dentistry since 1990
Location: 50 m north of BAC San José, Moravia
Contact: 240-9733, 241-5652, www.suarezsmilemakeover.com
Dr. Erika Uhrig
General cosmetic dentistry since 1990
Location: In front of Plaza de la Democracia, Avenida Central
Dr. Gabriela Villalobos
Dental surgeon since 1991
Location: Centro Odontológico San José, Ave. 7, Ca. 0/2
Contact: 222-1692, 221-0636, www.odontosjo.com
Dr. John Williams
General cosmetic dentistry since 1980
Location: 600 m north of La Paco commercial center, Escazú