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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

For medical tourists, can dental costs be too low?

From the print edition

Dental tourism remains the top medical tourism venture in Costa Rica. Of the tens of thousands of medical tourists who visit the country each year, 40 percent come to undergo dental procedures.

To try to gain the upper hand against competition, some dental offices offer extremely low prices. The Costa Rican Dental Surgeons Association sent out an alert last month announcing that those savings might be too good to be true, putting a patient’s health at risk.

In late May, the association denounced 17 dentists for offering prices for aesthetic treatments below the association’s fixed rates.  

The association says minimum prices help ensure quality, and charging significantly less could mean some dentists are cutting corners.

Selena Cubero, secretary of the association, said the warning was necessary because some prices are so low it would be impossible for dentists to buy top-shelf materials required of them. 

Cubero said the association fears dentists are buying lower-quality equipment from China or reusing disposable materials. 

“[Dentists] need to open up the little bags [containing disposable equipment] in front of you,” Cubero said. “That would be the minimum I’d expect as a patient.”

Some websites offer teeth whitening for as cheap as $60, when the association lists the process at a minimum of $244.

For foreign patients, a minimum price still can be an impressive offer. In the United States, professional teeth whitening starts at approximately $500 (do-it-yourself kits are cheaper). 

The minimum cost for a crown is $328 in Costa Rica. A Google search reveals the price for the same procedure in the U.S. ranges from $700-$1,500.

Cubero recommends ensuring a dentist is registered with the association, either through their website, (in Spanish), or by calling 2256-3100. Some 4,300 dentists belong to the organization. 

Patients also should make sure dentists are licensed to perform certain procedures. For example, Cubero said, a general dentist would not be able to do the same treatments as a specialist who installs dental implants. Dentists must take a 12-hour recertification course every year.

A new company is helping medical tourists find the right doctors and dentists. HuliHealth, which was recognized as one of the best start-up companies in Costa Rica last year, is designing a database of doctors and dentists in the country. Founder Alejandro Vega said visitors can try out a beta version of the site at, and the website’s official launch is set for late summer.

Vega said one of the keys to a successful medical tourism trip is to not simply rummage around for the best bargains. The goal of medical tourists is to save money, but if a dentist practice seems too cheap, “it’s often for a reason,” he said.

HuliHealth plans to give a more rounded overview of what’s available in Costa Rica (pilot sites also will include Panama and Taiwan). Prospective tourists can talk with previous patients and browse through a network of recommended doctors. 

“A lot of people, sometimes when they buy tennis shoes or computers or whatever, spend a bunch of time on research and pricing and all that information,” Vega said. “But when it comes to doctors and health, for whatever reason they don’t do as much research as they should.”

Cubero, who runs a dental office in Jacó on the central Pacific coast, assured the majority of dentists throughout the country offer quality, problem-free service. 

She said the “low-prices” alert is intended to keep improving the industry as more competition arises from other Latin American countries. In addition, the association is in talks with the Costa Rican Tourism Board and the Foreign Trade Promotion Office to begin dental tourism ad campaigns. 

In the days following the association’s warning, consumer advocates argued that prices were too high, and that costs make it difficult for many Costa Ricans to receive dental care. One dental office told the daily La Nación it filed a lawsuit to have the courts review the “minimum price” for teeth whitening. 

Joseph Herrera, director of the Fundación Salud y Familia (Fusafa), said he buys high-quality products at the same places other dentists do. However, he buys the materials, like tooth-whitening kits, in bulk for his large clientele and receives a discount. That’s why his website is able to promote deals like two-for-one teeth-whitening packages for $120. 

He said Fusafa can “respectfully demonstrate” it follows  all the correct procedures. The low prices allow him to treat patients who cannot afford the fixed minimum prices. He doesn’t plan to raise his prices in spite of the alert.

“To have white-teeth treatment isn’t a question of if you’re rich or poor, it’s a question of fairness,” Herrera said. “People have the right to have a smile that’s white and beautiful.” 

Herrera said his business doesn’t cater to many foreigners, and focuses on providing care to locals in his office in Sabanilla, east of San José.

For medical tourists, who already are receiving a discount in treatment compared to their homeland, the sensible advice seems to be to exercise caution when deciding how low you want to go.

“If you want to have a quality service,” Cubero said, “definitely it’s related to price.”

Recommended dental prices

Some of the minimum prices listed by the Costa Rican Dental Surgeons Association include:

Sealant: $36

Extraction: $40

Regular cleaning: $50

Root canal (one root): $140

Two roots: $162

Three roots: $224

Teeth whitening: $244-$290 (depending on type of whitening)

Crown: $328

Source: Costa Rican Dental Surgeons Association

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