The Role of the Facilitator ~ Dental Tourism

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In the world of medical care, treatment for even a minor illness frequently runs into thousands of dollars. Medical insurance is virtually essential to gaining access to medical care.  Compare that to the world of dental care.  About half of all Americans have no dental insurance (for seniors that’s about 80%).  The fortunate ones with insurance are covered for basic twice-a-year cleanings, exams and x-rays.

For those who need extensive dentistry either as a result of aging, genetics, or lifestyle, fees ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 and beyond are not uncommon. These out-of-pocket expenses can be devastating whether you are working and raising a family or just trying to enjoy the Golden Years. The truth is that no one should ever avoid needed dental care due to lack of dental insurance.

The current Health Reform Bill, to the extent it focuses on dentistry, will not likely offer any relief.  When all is settled, seniors may find their already minimal Medicare Advantage dental benefits entirely eliminated.


According to the National Coalition on Health Care, an alliance of more than 70 organizations, about 40% of Americans who sought healthcare abroad did so for dental procedures. Despite the current economic climate’s negative effect on dentistry both in the US and abroad, even the American Dental Association (ADA) expects dental tourism to grow once the recession ends.

In spite of the numbers of dental tourists, dentistry also receives less attention in the world of Medical Tourism.  It’s a jungle out there, and not in the eco-tourism sense. A GoogleTM search for “dental tourism” came up with over a million hits. Dentistry is usually treated as one of many healthcare procedures thrown into the potpourri of treatments offered by medical tourism companies.  


A possible reason for this: the cost-per-procedure (and profit) of dentistry is much less than for other medical treatments.  Patients may feel comfortable being “Do-It-Yourselfers” (DIY) when seeking dental care abroad.  After all, dentistry is not at the life-threatening level of, say, a cardiac bypass, so they may feel they don’t need any assistance.

However, given the number of dental tourists and their specialized requirements, there is a necessary role for a qualified Dental Tourism Facilitator who can help patients navigate the world of international dentistry and locate quality care abroad.

Four Ps of Dental Facilitation

An effective dental tourism facilitator can help patients in all aspects of their experience, from choosing the right dentist at the right price, to helping arrange lodging and tours within both the budget and time constraints of the patient’s dental visit. When The Four Ps of Dental Facilitation come together (Figure 1) they offer the optimal dental experience for the patient.

Factors Resulting in Best Patient Care

Product

Simply defined, the Dental Tourism Facilitator is a person or company offering a service to prospective dental patients:  to help them navigate the world of international dentistry and find the best quality care abroad, at the same time helping them to realize major cost-savings.

The Dental Tourism Facilitator offers their knowledge to help patients save time and avoid potential missteps. Anyone who has ever put together his or her own vacation knows how easy it is to make mistakes in a foreign place. The DIY patient risks the increased chance of mistakes not only in their basic travel choices of where to stay or what to see, but in the most important decisions–those they are least prepared to evaluate, “Who will treat me? Do I understand what they are offering me?”

The medical tourist may rely on Joint Commission (JC) or other hospital accreditation to gain a sense of security about their place of treatment. Dental tourists do not have that same advantage. Dentists, generally work in solo practice or in clinics. They are small business people, and formalized accreditation of businesses of the size and quantity of dental practices may present unique challenges.


With serious medical procedures, the “tourism” part of medical tourism may be a misnomer. The dental tourist, however, is likely to be ready, willing and able to sightsee right before or even after his or her procedures. So in addition to quality dentistry, the Facilitator may also offer lodging and tour services on the ground.

A patient who believes that they can evaluate a dentist with phone calls and email may be in for a surprise when they arrive for treatment. Many people will not know the right questions to ask, or the answers they should be hoping for. This is where the dental tourism facilitator can make all the difference, if they have the right set of professional skills.

Professionalism

A patient working with a Facilitator has the right to expect that their guide to choosing dental treatment abroad would have skills that match the task.  Qualified dental tourism facilitators should have backgrounds in dentistry and healthcare. They “talk” dentistry and know the questions to ask dentists, including procedural codes, names of materials used, etc. Such knowledge would seem to be a given, but this is not always the case.

Quality dental tourism facilitators meet the dentists they recommend in person. Face-to-face meetings provide the most information.  On site, Facilitators with dental background check several things: general condition of the office, equipment used, sterilization procedures followed, staff members, training courses taken, level of English fluency, and even the neighborhood location of the offices.

When Pan American Dental Tours built its provider network, we met practitioners with fine credentials and skills whose offices or locations in town would have been unacceptable for many patients.  That vital piece of information would have never been received through a phone call or e-mail.

While it is obvious that Do-It-Yourselfers cannot have this depth of information, it may also be true that Facilitators offering laundry lists of providers in multiple countries may never meet their dental “partners.”

Meetings with local tour guides to establish their sensitivity to patient’s needs, willingness to provide excellent travel help and English proficiency is best done in person as well.

Knowledge carries a price, which is why the next “P” may be the best for the Dental Tourism shopper.

Price

Dental tourists are by nature, and by the very act they engage in, price sensitive. So the dental tourist will want to know that not only can they work with a Facilitator to maximize their experience, but they could potentially save money by doing so.

And again, dental tourism facilitators working with tour partners may provide much the same service for clients with their travel partners. Tour experts in the same city as the dentist, who understand the special time needs of treatment will be the patient’s eyes and ears on the ground.

Why would a patient not work with a dental tourism facilitator?

Place

There are many countries where the motivated dental patient can go for quality treatment.  An informed Facilitator will (or should) have been in the country(ies) they recommend to clients and will be able to share the important non-treatment factors. Safety, access by air and ease of travel inside a country are things to consider.

Having traveled around Central America, Panama can be seen as the “go-to” location for dental work. Comparable to Miami, Panama City is sophisticated, with tall buildings balanced by picturesque historical sections and even an in-town rain forest.


Travelers from the States may feel more comfortable in Panama than other destinations in Central America.  For the patient who wants to tour, there is a diversity of nature unsurpassed in the hemisphere, whether for island getaways or eco-tourism in the jungle. The icing on the cake is that they accept the US dollar: travelers will have no bothersome conversions of money and credit card surcharges for the money they spend.

About the Authors

Jeffrey Apton, President.

As owner of two successful Medical Education agencies working in the US and Internationally, Jeff created numerous programs to deliver better health care information to professionals and consumers.  Many of these programs were featured in industry and national media, including Pharmaceutical Executive, Newsweek, CNN, BBC, etc.


His clients were major pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, including Pfizer, Merck and Novartis, as well as non-profit patient advocacy groups. Jeff serves as Vice-Chairman and counselor for a Connecticut Chapter of SCORE, a non-profit association that has helped over 8.5 million small businesses owners across the US since its founding in 1964. Jeff can be reached at
japton@panamdentaltours.com

Robin Apton RDH, MS, Clinical Coordinator.

Robin holds both BS and MS degrees from Columbia University School of Dental and Oral Surgery, Division of Dental Hygiene. She has thirty years of experience practicing as a registered dental hygienist (RDH) in a number of busy periodontal and prosthodontic practices.

In addition to teaching at the University level at Columbia and the University of Bridgeport, Robin has owned and operated a dental employment agency that placed professionals in offices throughout the New York region. Robin can be reached at robin@panamdentaltours.com