A Tale of 3 Dentists - Mexico dental tourism
I don’t have a fear of dentistry, even though I had some painful experiences with cavity filling and braces when I was young. I like the feeling of taking care of myself, and I’ve learned to do my homework, then relax and let the professionals take care of me, from haircuts to surgery.
Mexicans have a nurturing, earthy side to their culture; they are comfortable and accepting of the human need for touch and care. They celebrate it, in fact. My friend, who recently experienced the tragic loss of her husband, gets a long hug and some tears from each friend the first time they see her since he passed.
This caring vibe comes out in their hospitality and also in their medical care.
I had major surgery in Mexico City for a hernia a few years ago, it turned out I had multiple small hernias and was in surgery for 4 hours. One of the main things I remember about my doctor was his warm hand squeeze right before they put me under.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. None of this is meant to be medical advice to anyone. In fact, if you have underlying health conditions, poor diet, weight issues, are not used to travel, medical tourism may not be a fit for you. You decide. I am not sponsored or compensated in any way by any business mentioned here.
I had been going to dentists in Mexico for about 5 years before the pandemic. During COVID-19, I didn’t go to a dentist for about 2 years, so when I came down to Cancun I decided to take advantage of the trip and get a cleaning.
Since gringo markup is a thing in Mexico, my hypothesis was that a local dentist that did not cater to tourists would be less expensive than a practice with a modern website and English-speaking staff.
We shall see. Vamos a ver.
I visited and compared 3 different dentists, below are the details of the results. I also talk about it in this video.
Dentist No. 1
Dentist #1 has been practicing in downtown Cancun for several years and does not actively market to English speakers or tourists. His office is modern and clean, in a nondescript building that is neither.
I arrive, his staff takes my temperature with one of those touchless digital thermometer ray-guns, gives me gel, and keeps their masks on the whole time.
The dentist has a calm, professional manner. He performs a thorough visual exam and a cleaning with the high-pressure water pic, not the scratchy sharp picks.
I can tell he has a lot of experience at this. It is like when a good stylist cuts your hair, creating precise sections with a comb. The dentist balances the gentle pressure of his finger on my lip as he methodically works his way around my teeth.
Prognosis: He says I have 8 cavities and 2 areas with receding gums that need to be filled with composite resin. I’m thinking that sounds like a lot of cavities.
I say, “Do cavities develop quickly? Because just 2 years ago, I didn’t have any new ones.”
He looked very surprised because he’s seeing something that he feels has been there a while.
I have a pending stay in Playa del Carmen, so in retrospect, I should have just said, let me get back to you.
I am practicing being decisive, however, and I make the appointments for 2 weeks out after a confusing conversation about his availability.
I'm not sure why, but in Mexico, people make plans verbally 90% of the time. I am used to writing things down, especially if I'm juggling many appointments. That's why I like email.
Anyway, we finish up, and I pay 950 pesos for the cleaning, about $45.
His estimate for the rest of the work: 1500 pesos per filling, for a total of 13,500 pesos, which is about $700. He recommended 3 or 4 appointments to do all the work.
Out of pocket: $45
Estimate for more work: $700
A couple of days later, I head down to my stay in Playa del Carmen for about 2 weeks.
Playa is about 20 - 30 min from Cancun, and when I got here I learned there was no UBER in Playa. There is a bus to Cancun that is not too expensive but it would take longer.
I realized it was going to be a time-consuming, expensive hassle to go back and forth to the dentist in Cancun.
So I email Dentist #1, canceling my appointments and asking for his availability closer to the end of my stay, when I will be back in Cancun.
I also think, you know, I’m in a big center for medical tourism right here, how about I check out a couple of offices here? Duh.
So I did.
I look on Google for the offices with the highest reviews and call two of those. I tell them I just need a general exam, I don't tell them anything about cavities or my previous appointment.
Bokanova Riviera can’t see me for a week, a bummer, but perhaps a good sign? She puts me on the waitlist.
The DentalSpa could see me the next day. Great!
Both offices have bilingual staff so making the appointment is super easy if you do not speak Spanish.
Later the same day, Bokanova calls me back and says they have a cancellation at 5:00 pm, would I want to come in?
Even if I didn’t figure out all my logistics on point before I came down, (I was super busy moving out), at least I scored with the location of my hotel. Just about everything is only a 10-minute walk from where I’m staying - The Palm at Playa - so I say, Claro que si! I’ll be there.
DENTIST No. 2
The Bokanova office is located in a small shopping center with some vacancies. As I approach, I pass an old white woman sitting on the curb outside one of the empty offices. She is wearing a faded pink patterned blouse and purple shorts, with blotchy discolorations on her arms and legs that matched her outfit. Her hair is thin, she is looking down.
I feel bad for her and make a note to see if she’s still here when I leave.
I enter the dental office, they take my temperature, give me sanitizer gel and a couple of forms to fill out.
The receptionist also says, "I forgot to tell you on the phone, but the consultation is 800 pesos and if you need a cavity fixed it's 1000 pesos."
I was a little surprised, but then again I didn’t expect the appointment to be free, so I say, OK.
I am fine with paying the consult fee, and I'm not planning on getting fillings today, anyway.
As I am waiting, an older man with a cane approaches the office, with one of the dental techs, returning from the x-ray office in the same plaza.
He is shuffling along, one leg is bandaged at the ankle. I have the impression he's recently out of the hospital. His skin is ashen, he's got a stringy ponytail and faded tropical shirt. My normal response is to feel compassion for someone like that - so here is what surprised me:
His energy is so negative I get a bad feeling just from watching him walk across the open area before he even entered the office.
I am thankful for my mask. I get up and move across the waiting room to distance myself.
This is the kind of thing I used to suppress; I would say, Don’t be silly, you are imagining things. You don't want to offend anyone.
I was that sensible woman who would force myself to enter the elevator, stay in the meeting, agree to the lunch, with my insides shouting NO, just to prove to myself that I was in charge.
I was so NOT in charge. What I WAS -was giving my power away hugely. I betrayed my intuition on a regular basis.
I am super lucky nothing really violent happened to me, although the amount of time I wasted and the negative energy I absorbed was colossal over the years.
Anyway, this is what happened next:
The front desk staff asks him about making his next appointment, he's unsure and they say, you can just call us later. He says “No,no, let me get my wife since she’ll be the one driving me”. He shuffles over to the door, opens it, and yells “Hey! Come here!" pause. "COME HERE!" in a loud, sharp voice.
It literally sounds like he is calling a dog.
Instead, he is calling the woman in the purple shorts I saw earlier, who for whatever reason was waiting, on the curb, outside in the heat.
Thankfully it's time for my exam. The dental tech and I exchange wide-eyed glances behind our masks as she leads me back to the exam room.
I sit in the chair, Dentist 2 arrives, we chat a bit. He is from Mexico City and also went to dental school there.
I tell him I have the COVID vaccine and he says he has his, too.
He looks at my teeth for a couple of minutes and then suggests that they do a panoramic x-ray for 350 pesos, about $14.
I agree, and his assistant walks me over to the x-ray office, which has a super modern x-ray machine. bzzz bzzz in a semicircle around my head and we are done.
After that, I return to the office and he performs a thorough exam. He even has a small Xray camera about the size of a matchbook that he uses to check a couple of my back teeth, saying "I want to be sure there are no underlying issues”. Fabulouso!
Like Dentist 1, he notes I have some gum recession and suggests filling the spaces where the gums have receded, although he called them “mini’s” because some areas are not as pronounced as others.
He counts off the teeth position in Spanish for his assistant taking notes. He mentions a lot of fissures in my molars and says “We will just watch those, because if I start repairing fissures that's all I would be doing for days.”
This sounds ominous, yet I appreciate that he’s not using it as leverage to push me into getting crowns before I need them.
After he finishes, I brace myself for the bad news and he says, “Well, good news is, you don’t have any cavities.”
Wut?? Yay happy day!
But. There’s always a but, right?
“You do have several areas where we suggest you get the resin fillers to protect the areas exposed.”
Prognosis: 10 mini fills at 800 pesos each, for a total of 8000 pesos, about $400 USD. His assistant gives me a detailed estimate, date stamped and signed by the dentist.
For those of you keeping score, this is the same number of total services - 10 - as Dentist 1 who said I had 8 cavities and 2 areas that needed filling.
This is the reason I don't think Dentist 1 was trying to rip me off. In English, thanks to decades of Colgate commercials, the word “cavity” in the context of American dentistry means a hole with an infection that is decaying and going to get worse.
I suspect the word “cavity” in dental Spanish can also mean any area where the tooth is showing an indentation - such as where gums have receded.
I say I will think about it and I pay 800 pesos for the visit, or about $40.
The panoramic xray was 350 pesos / $14 USD.
So, $54 total out of pocket for this visit.
Out of pocket, today: $54, total for trip: $99
Dentist No. 3
The next day, I walk over to the DentalSpa. The office is clean but the Spa part eludes me.
As with everywhere else, they also take my temperature, give me a spritz of gel. What is new here is they ask me to put on a disposable gown (over my clothes) and scrub cap. Definitely not feeling a Spa vibe.
After a brief exam, Dentist 3 also says I have no cavities, and she recommends 3 fillings where the gums are receding, at 1500 pesos each, for 4500 pesos or about $224 USD.
They offer to do the fillings on the spot. I say no gracias, no tengo tiempo hoy. I don't have time today.
As I'm leaving I ask for a written estimate and the receptionist politely repeats the prices verbally but makes no move to write them down. This is her way of saying no to a written estimate.
So instead I make a note on a piece of paper, pay 240 pesos, or about $15 USD for the check up, and leave.
Out of pocket, today: $15. Running total: $114.
Estimate: $224 for 3 procedures.
So to sum all of this up:
Dentist 1 - traditional practice, Cancun, not catering to English speaking market:
Cleaning - $45
Proposal, written on back of flyer - fill 8 cavities and 2 areas with receding gums
Dentist 2 - Bokanova Riviera, Playa del Carmen, markets to English speakers / tourists:
Proposal: detailed and signed - no cavities, fill 10 areas where gums are receding.
Dentist 3 - Dental Spa, Playa del Carmen, also markets to English speakers / tourists
Proposal - no written info, verbal recommendation is I have no cavities, but need to fill 3 areas, for $224.
So, what did I decide to do?
Remember that part I wrote earlier about practicing being decisive?
What I really want to practice is making good decisions as fast as possible.
Fast does not always mean good.
It means getting enough info and making a decision without overthinking it. There is a difference.
I have no cavities in the Colgate advertising sense - as in an infection that is going to get worse. I have no pain. I have great dental hygiene. I will need some crowns replaced in the next few years but for now, I’m not going to do anything.
I have doubts about this trend of resin fillers; I talk about that more in thisvideo.
Having said all that, if I were to schedule more care, my choice out of the three would be Bokanova.
They had the most modern office, most thorough exam, the best English language marketing, and making an appointment was a breeze.
They also had the best price.
Que milagro. But even if they didn't I would still go there. Dental care is not the place to pinch every peso.
If I hadn’t done this experiment, I would have assumed their prices would be higher due to the gringo markup. Turns out that in this case, no.
Note to self: Competition is a good thing for consumers who do their homework.
The traditional Dentist #1 was the most expensive; he’s operating in a less competitive environment with much lower overhead. His business margins are probably better than Bokanova, with lower volume. Very smart, actually.
Disclaimer again: I am in no way giving medical advice to anyone. If you have underlying health conditions, poor diet, weight issues, are not used to travel, you will want to take all of that into consideration. I’m simply sharing my experience. If you take action based on what you read here, I’m not responsible for your results.
Having said that, my friend Sergio and I did house and pet sitting once for an American ex-pat couple in La Paz who are managing the wife's heart condition between San Diego and Mexico. They have doctors on both sides of the border who are cooperating on that arrangement, saving the couple thousands and thousands of dollars.
Anything you can do to spend your health care dollars on YOU and not give them to an insurance company is a win in my book.
If you have a health condition that is long-term and can be managed in an organized way, one idea is to treat it like a project. Do your research, contact some ex-pats in similar situations, do more research, and create an overall plan. Check out the expat groups on Facebook for the areas you are interested in, they can be a wealth of on-the-ground info. Bottom line is always do your own homework and check your gut before you decide, too.
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