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Perspective

Adventures in medical tourism

Putting my money where my mouth is on a trip to Costa Rica.

Steve Wacksman

NOT LONG AGO I came down with a toothache. This thing hurt like someone was jamming a screwdriver between my tooth and my gum. I would have paid any price, made any promise, confessed any crime just to make the pain go away. My dentist told me I needed a root canal and crown, which would cost $2,350. And my three existing crowns needed to be replaced, too, because they were nearing the end of their 10-year life expectancy. This would cost about another $3,600. Did I mention that I don’t have dental insurance?

I shopped around a bit, but my dentist turned out to be about average price-wise, so there was no relief there. While surfing the Internet I came across the idea of going abroad for dental work. The general term you see is “medical tourism,” a moniker I admit I don’t like. “Honey, I’ll meet you on the beach as soon as I have my gallbladder removed.” Let’s face it, it can’t be that much fun.

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It turns out that this year more than 1.6 million folks will travel outside this country for medical care, according to the Medical Tourism Association, and the numbers continue to grow. In the new “heat, eat, or go to the doctor” America, many people simply have no other choice. Apparently India is the place to go for heart surgery, but Hungary and Costa Rica head the A-list for dental work.

Once I narrowed my search to Costa Rica, I found numerous clinics set up in the capital city of San Jose. They had websites with pictures of clean offices, modern equipment, and, of course, gleaming smiles all around. Moreover, many of the dentists were trained in the United States at places like the University of California, Los Angeles and New York University. Seeing those qualifications, I felt a little less like a lunatic and more like a modern-day Magellan who had bad teeth.

So, before I knew it, my plane was landing at Santamaria International Airport just outside San Jose. My taxi driver immediately started speaking to me in Spanish, although mine is pretty much limited to arroz con pollo and cafe con leche. I was able to glean that he thinks I look like President Carter (which I take as a compliment even though I’m 61 and Jimmy Carter is 88). I once had a Boston second-grader ask me whether I was President Clinton. Maybe all white-haired white guys look alike.

At the clinic, my dentist, Dr. Luis Obando, and his pleasant staff were all quite young yet came across as very competent. They did digital X-rays — which expose patients to 50 percent to 90 percent less radiation than the old style — and used high-resolution cameras to show me the condition of my teeth and the work to be done. Everything was sterile-looking, and the comforting rinse cup was right there within reach. When they reclined my chair, I could see a flat-screen TV mounted on the ceiling tuned to CNN in English.

Oddly, there’s not a lot to say about the actual dental work. Everything went smoothly, just like going to the dentist in the United States. The main difference was, of course, the final cost — about one-third of what I was quoted at home. For example, a crown in the Boston area runs upward of $1,000. In Costa Rica, it costs about $400.

Here’s another way to explain the savings: This trip included a round-trip airline ticket for me and a week’s hotel stay in San Jose; plus another round-trip ticket for my wife, who joined me for a second week, our stay in a luxury villa in a cloud forest, and the four-wheel-drive car rental we needed to get there; plus, lest I forget, the dental work itself. And it was all still cheaper than driving the 10 miles and visiting my dentist back home.

Kirk Meyer is the executive director of the Green Schoolyard Network. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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