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Dentists All Smiles Over Tourism Prospects

Alejandro Castro pulls a stack of business cards out of his pocket. “There’s your health care reform,” Castro says. And he smiles.

Dental care providers and the medical tourism industry have a glistening future together in Costa Rica. Castro, the marketing manager at Colina Dental in Escazú, has the evidence to prove it. He displays a stash of about 50 business cards, representing the many businesspeople his company has networked with during a three-day medical tourism conference in San José.

The Global Medicine and Wellness Congress ran through Wednesday at the Ramada Plaza Herradura. Hundreds of buyers, medical and dental providers, and people who facilitate health care related travel attended the conference. The event focused on how to attract U.S. patients to Latin America for treatment in the wake of the recent U.S. health care reform. If there’s one group of professionals in Costa Rica that looks to benefit most from the new health care policy in the United States, it’s dentistry.

Castro and other dental care practitioners believe many Americans will only receive the most basic form of health insurance. As a result, dental insurance will likely be lacking for U.S. citizens and aesthetic work, such as veneers and dental implants, and non-dental procedures like bariatric surgery or plastic surgery, may not be covered.

Dental providers in Costa Rica want to take advantage of what they hope will be an influx of visitors by emphasizing the “tourism” side of medical tourism. Tiffany Kofroth, patient coordinator at Prisma Dental in Rohrmoser, said that since certain dental procedures usually take a few days, providers in Costa Rica will offer the service as part of a longer quasi-vacation package.

“(The dentists) do the prep work,” Kofroth said. “It’ll take about three days. Then, they have six or seven days to go tour if they want to go to the beach, if they want to go to Arenal. They have plenty of time to do it.”

While a vacation sounds relaxing, the cost-efficiency is Costa Rica’s main draw. For the uninsured, even a basic procedure like a dental crown can cost upwards of $1,000 in the U.S., Kofroth said. In Costa Rica, the cost is around $250.

Dr. Mario Bonilla, a dentist at New Smile Costa Rica in San José, said major treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars less in Costa Rica. To promote medical tourism, Bonilla’s clinic offers visitors from abroad help in finding a hotel for the recuperation period, chauffer services between the hotel and dental office, a bilingual staff, and options for touring Costa Rica after the operation.

Out of the 85 booths at the medical tourism conference, almost a dozen centered on promoting dental care in Costa Rica. Hernán Campos, the event’s organizer, estimated that 40 percent of Costa Rica’s medical tourism involves dental care or plastic surgery.

“Dental is very strong in Costa Rica,” Campos said. “And we have developed a reputation from those who come to Costa Rica that dental clinics here do a good job.”

Costa Rican dentists have been working with American patients for years. However, only recently have the dental providers made a concerted effort to push the medical tourism angle to those living outside the country.

One new feature that clinics hope to capitalize on is quick service procedures, Castro said. Dental offices such as Colina Dental now have the equipment to undertake basic operations with limited recovery time. The technology would allow a patient to fly from Los Angeles on a Sunday night, have the dental work done on a Monday, and leave for home that night. The one-day affair would save clients money on both the operation itself as well as on food, lodging and other amenities in Costa Rica.

Castro said he sees medical tourism’s growth as the next logical step in Costa Rica’s rise as a vaunted tourist destination.

“Costa Rica has a really good reputation on sustainable tourism,” Castro said. “And this has helped us to have a good name for medical tourism. They know that we’re sustainable, we’re green, that we care about the environment, and now they’re starting to see we have a great health care system and dental clinics.”

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